John Dos Passos.

Three Soldiers online

. (page 12 of 31)
Online LibraryJohn Dos PassosThree Soldiers → online text (page 12 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of the grenade and threw it far from him.

There was a minute's pause.

Red flame spurted in the middle of the wheatfield. He felt the sharp
crash in his eardrums.

He walked fast through the rain. Behind him, at the door of the shack,
he could hear excited voices. He walked recklessly on, the rain blinding
him. When he finally stepped into the light he was so dazzled he could
not see who was in the wine shop.

"Well, I'll be damned, Chris," said Andrews's voice. Chrisfield blinked
the rain out of his lashes. Andrews sat writing with a pile of papers
before him and a bottle of champagne. It seemed to Chrisfield to soothe
his nerves to hear Andy's voice. He wished he would go on talking a long
time without a pause.

"If you aren't the crowning idiot of the ages," Andrews went on in a low
voice. He took Chrisfield by the arm and led him into the little back
room, where was a high bed with a brown coverlet and a big kitchen table
on which were the remnants of a meal.

"What's the matter? Your arm's trembling like the devil. But why.... O
pardon, Crimpette. C'est un ami.... You know Crimpette, don't you?" He
pointed to a youngish woman who had just appeared from behind the bed.
She had a flabby rosy face and violet circles under her eyes, dark as
if they'd been made by blows, and untidy hair. A dirty grey muslin
dress with half the hooks off held in badly her large breasts and
flabby figure. Chrisfield looked at her greedily, feeling his furious
irritation flame into one desire.

"What's the matter with you, Chris? You're crazy to break out of
quarters this way?"

"Say, Andy, git out o' here. Ah ain't your sort anyway.... Git out o'

"You're a wild man. I'll grant you that.... But I'd just as soon be your
sort as anyone else's.... Have a drink."

"Not now."

Andrews sat down with his bottle and his papers, pushing away the broken
plates full of stale food to make a place on the greasy table. He took
a gulp out of the bottle, that made him cough, then put the end of his
pencil in his mouth and stared gravely at the paper.

"No, I'm your sort, Chris," he said over his shoulder, "only they've
tamed me. O God, how tame I am."

Chrisfield did not listen to what he was saying. He stood in front of
the woman, staring in her face. She looked at him in a stupid frightened
way. He felt in his pockets for some money. As he had just been paid he
had a fifty-franc note. He spread it out carefully before her. Her eyes
glistened. The pupils seemed to grow smaller as they fastened on the bit
of daintily colored paper. He crumpled it up suddenly in his fist and
shoved it down between her breasts.

Some time later Chrisfield sat down in front of Andrews. He still had
his wet slicker on.

"Ah guess you think Ah'm a swine," he said in his normal voice. "Ah
guess you're about right."

"No, I don't," said Andrews. Something made him put his hand on
Chrisfield's hand that lay on the table. It had a feeling of cool

"Say, why were you trembling so when you came in here? You seem all
right now."

"Oh, Ah dunno,'" said Chrisfield in a soft resonant voice.

They were silent for a long while. They could hear the woman's footsteps
going and coming behind them.

"Let's go home," said Chrisfield.

"All right.... Bonsoir, Crimpette."

Outside the rain had stopped. A stormy wind had torn the clouds to rags.
Here and there clusters of stars showed through. They splashed merrily
through the puddles. But here and there reflected a patch of stars when
the wind was not ruffling them.

"Christ, Ah wish Ah was like you, Andy," said Chrisfield.

"You don't want to be like me, Chris. I'm no sort of a person at all.
I'm tame. O you don't know how damn tame I am."

"Learnin' sure do help a feller to git along in the world."

"Yes, but what's the use of getting along if you haven't any world to
get along in? Chris, I belong to a crowd that just fakes learning. I
guess the best thing that can happen to us is to get killed in this
butchery. We're a tame generation.... It's you that it matters to kill."

"Ah ain't no good for anythin'.... Ah doan give a damn.... Lawsee, Ah
feel sleepy."

As they slipped in the door of their quarters, the sergeant looked at
Chrisfield searchingly. Andrews spoke up at once.

"There's some rumors going on at the latrine, Sarge. The fellows from
the Thirty-second say we're going to march into hell's halfacre about

"A lot they know about it."

"That's the latest edition of the latrine news."

"The hell it is! Well, d'you want to know something, Andrews.... It'll
be before Thursday, or I'm a Dutchman."

Sergeant Higgins put on a great air of mystery.

Chrisfield went to his bunk, undressed quietly and climbed into his
blankets. He stretched his arms languidly a couple of times, and while
Andrews was still talking to the sergeant, fell asleep.


The moon lay among clouds on the horizon, like a big red pumpkin among
its leaves.

Chrisfield squinted at it through the boughs of the apple trees laden
with apples that gave a winey fragrance to the crisp air. He was sitting
on the ground, his legs stretched limply before him, leaning against
the rough trunk of an apple tree. Opposite him, leaning against another
tree, was the square form, surmounted by a large long-jawed face, of
Judkins. Between them lay two empty cognac bottles. All about them was
the rustling orchard, with its crooked twigs that made a crackling sound
rubbing together in the gusts of the autumn wind, that came heavy with a
smell of damp woods and of rotting fruits and of all the ferment of
the overripe fields. Chrisfield felt it stirring the moist hair on his
forehead and through the buzzing haze of the cognac heard the plunk,
plunk, plunk of apples dropping that followed each gust, and the
twanging of night insects, and, far in the distance, the endless rumble
of guns, like tomtoms beaten for a dance.

"Ye heard what the Colonel said, didn't ye?" said Judkins in a voice
hoarse from too much drink.

Chrisfield belched and nodded his head vaguely. He remembered Andrews's
white fury after the men had been dismissed, how he had sat down on the
end of a log by the field kitchen, staring at the patch of earth he beat
into mud with the toe of his boot.

"Then," went on Judkins, trying to imitate the Colonel's solemn
efficient voice, "'On the subject of prisoners'" - he hiccoughed and made
a limp gesture with his hand - "'On the subject of prisoners, well, I'll
leave that to you, but juss remember... juss remember what the Huns did
to Belgium, an' I might add that we have barely enough emergency rations
as it is, and the more prisoners you have the less you fellers'll git to

"That's what he said, Judkie; that's what he said."

"'An the more prisoners ye have, the less youse'll git to eat,'" chanted
Judkins, making a triumphal flourish with his hand.

Chrisfield groped for the cognac bottle; it was empty; he waved it in
the air a minute and then threw it into the tree opposite him. A shower
of little apples fell about Judkins's head. He got unsteadily to his

"I tell you, fellers," he said, "war ain't no picnic."

Chrisfield stood up and grabbed at an apple. His teeth crunched into it.

"Sweet," he said.

"Sweet, nauthin'," mumbled Judkins, "war ain't no picnic.... I tell
you, buddy, if you take any prisoners" - he hiccoughed - "after what the
Colonel said, I'll lick the spots out of you, by God I will.... Rip up
their guts that's all, like they was dummies. Rip up their guts." His
voice suddenly changed to one of childish dismay. "Gee, Chris, I'm going
to be sick," he whispered.

"Look out," said Chrisfield, pushing him away. Judkins leaned against a
tree and vomited.

The full moon had risen above the clouds and filled the apple orchard
with chilly golden light that cast a fantastic shadow pattern of
interlaced twigs and branches upon the bare ground littered with apples.
The sound of the guns had grown nearer. There were loud eager rumbles
as of bowls being rolled very hard on a bowling alley, combined with a
continuous roar like sheets of iron being shaken.

"Ah bet it's hell out there," said Chrisfield.

"I feel better," said Judkins. "Let's go get some more cognac."

"Ah'm hungry," said Chrisfield. "Let's go an' get that ole woman to cook
us some aigs."

"Too damn late," growled Judkins.

"How the hell late is it?"

"Dunno, I sold my watch."

They were walking at random through the orchard. They came to a field
full of big pumpkins that gleamed in the moonlight and cast shadows
black as holes. In the distance they could see wooded hills.

Chrisfield picked up a medium-sized pumpkin and threw it as hard as he
could into the air. It split into three when it landed with a thud on
the ground, and the moist yellow seeds spilled out.

"Some strong man, you are," said Judkins, tossing up a bigger one.

"Say, there's a farmhouse, maybe we could get some aigs from the

"Hell of a lot of hens...."

At that moment the crowing of a rooster came across the silent fields.
They ran towards the dark farm buildings.

"Look out, there may be officers quartered there."

They walked cautiously round the square, silent group of buildings.
There were no lights. The big wooden door of the court pushed open
easily, without creaking. On the roof of the barn the pigeon-cot was
etched dark against the disc of the moon. A warm smell of stables blew
in their faces as the two men tiptoed into the manure-littered farmyard.
Under one of the sheds they found a table on which a great many pears
were set to ripen. Chrisfield put his teeth into one. The rich sweet
juice ran down his chin. He ate the pear quickly and greedily, and then
bit into another.

"Fill yer pockets with 'em," whispered Judkins.

"They might ketch us."

"Ketch us, hell. We'll be goin' into the offensive in a day or two."

"Ah sure would like to git some aigs."

Chrisfield pushed open the door of one of the barns. A smell of creamy
milk and cheeses filled his nostrils.

"Come here," he whispered. "Want some cheese?"

A lot of cheeses ranged on a board shone silver in the moonlight that
came in through the open door.

"Hell, no, ain't fit te eat," said Judkins, pushing his heavy fist into
one of the new soft cheeses.

"Doan do that."

"Well, ain't we saved 'em from the Huns?"

"But, hell."

"War ain't no picnic, that's all," said Judkins.

In the next door they found chickens roosting in a small room with straw
on the floor. The chickens ruffled their feathers and made a muffled
squeaking as they slept.

Suddenly there was a loud squawking and all the chickens were cackling
with terror.

"Beat it," muttered Judkins, running for the gate of the farmyard.

There were shrill cries of women in the house. A voice shrieking, "C'est
les Boches, C'est les Boches," rose above the cackling of chickens and
the clamor of guinea-hens. As they ran, they heard the rasping cries of
a woman in hysterics, rending the rustling autumn night.

"God damn," said Judkins breathless, "they ain't got no right, those
frogs ain't, to carry on like that."

They ducked into the orchard again. Above the squawking of the chicken
Judkins still held, swinging it by its legs, Chrisfield could hear the
woman's voice shrieking. Judkins dexterously wrung the chicken's neck.
Crushing the apples underfoot they strode fast through the orchard.
The voice faded into the distance until it could not be heard above the
sound of the guns.

"Gee, Ah'm kind o' cut up 'bout that lady," said Chrisfield.

"Well, ain't we saved her from the Huns?"

"Andy don't think so."

"Well, if you want to know what I think about that guy Andy I don't
think much of him. I think he's yaller, that's all," said Judkins.

"No, he ain't."

"I heard the lootenant say so. He's a goddam yeller dawg."

Chrisfield swore sullenly.

"Well, you juss wait 'n see. I tell you, buddy, war ain't no picnic."

"What the hell are we goin' to do with that chicken?" said Judkins.

"You remember what happened to Eddie White?"

"Hell, we'd better leave it here."

Judkins swung the chicken by its neck round his head and threw it as
hard as he could into the bushes.

They were walking along the road between chestnut trees that led to
their village. It was dark except for irregular patches of bright
moonlight in the centre that lay white as milk among the indentated
shadows of the leaves. All about them rose a cool scent of woods,
of ripe fruits and of decaying leaves, of the ferment of the autumn

The lieutenant sat at a table in the sun, in the village street outside
the company office. In front of him sparkled piles of money and daintily
tinted banknotes. Beside him stood Sergeant Higgins with an air of
solemnity and the second sergeant and the corporal. The men stood
in line and as each came before the table he saluted with deference,
received his money and walked away with a self-conscious air. A few
villagers looked on from the small windows with grey frames of their
rambling whitewashed houses. In the ruddy sunshine the line of men
cast an irregular blue-violet shadow, like a gigantic centipede, on the
yellow gravel road.

From the table by the window of the cafe of "Nos Braves Poilus" where
Small and Judkins and Chrisfield had established themselves with their
pay crisp in their pockets, they could see the little front garden of
the house across the road, where, behind a hedge of orange marigolds,
Andrews sat on the doorstep talking to an old woman hunched on a low
chair in the sun just inside the door, who leant her small white head
over towards his yellow one.

"There ye are," said Judkins in a solemn tone. "He don't even go after
his pay. That guy thinks he's the whole show, he does."

Chrisfield flushed, but said nothing. "He don't do nothing all day long
but talk to that ole lady," said Small with a grin. "Guess she reminds
him of his mother, or somethin'."

"He always does go round with the frogs all he can. Looks to me like
he'd rather have a drink with a frog than with an American."

"Reckon he wants to learn their language," said Small. "He won't never
come to much in this army, that's what I'm telling yer," said Judkins.

The little houses across the way had flushed red with the sunset.
Andrews got to his feet slowly and languidly and held out his hand to
the old woman. She stood up, a small tottering figure in a black
silk shawl. He leaned over towards her and she kissed both his cheeks
vigorously several times. He walked down the road towards the billets,
with his fatigue cap in his hand, looking at the ground.

"He's got a flower behind his ear, like a cigarette," said Judkins, with
a disgusted snort.

"Well, I guess we'd better go," said Small. "We got to be in quarters at

They were silent a moment. In the distance the guns kept up a continual
tomtom sound.

"Guess we'll be in that soon," said Small.

Chrisfield felt a chill go down his spine. He moistened his lips with
his tongue.

"Guess it's hell out there," said Judkins. "War ain't no picnic."

"Ah doan give a hoot in hell," said Chrisfield.

The men were lined up in the village street with their packs on, waiting
for the order to move. Thin wreaths of white mist still lingered in the
trees and over the little garden plots. The sun had not yet risen,
but ranks of clouds in the pale blue sky overhead were brilliant with
crimson and gold. The men stood in an irregular line, bent over a little
by the weight of their equipment, moving back and forth, stamping their
feet and beating their arms together, their noses and ears red from the
chill of the morning. The haze of their breath rose above their heads.

Down the misty road a drab-colored limousine appeared, running slowly.
It stopped in front of the line of men. The lieutenant came hurriedly
out of the house opposite, drawing on a pair of gloves. The men standing
in line looked curiously at the limousine. They could see that two of
the tires were flat and that the glass was broken. There were scratches
on the drab paint and in the door three long jagged holes that
obliterated the number. A little murmur went down the line of men. The
door opened with difficulty, and a major in a light buff-colored coat
stumbled out. One arm, wrapped in bloody bandages, was held in a sling
made of a handkerchief. His face was white and drawn into a stiff mask
with pain. The lieutenant saluted.

"For God's sake where's a repair station?" he asked in a loud shaky

"There's none in this village, Major."

"Where the hell is there one?"

"I don't know," said the lieutenant in a humble tone.

"Why the hell don't you know? This organization's rotten, no good....
Major Stanley's just been killed. What the hell's the name of this


"Where the hell's that?"

The chauffeur had leaned out. He had no cap and his hair was full of

"You see, Lootenant, we wants to get to Chalons - "

"Yes, that's it. Chalons sur...Chalons-sur-Marne," said the Major.

"The billeting officer has a map," said the lieutenant, "last house to
the left."

"O let's go there quick," said the major. He fumbled with the fastening
of the door.

The lieutenant opened it for him.

As he opened the door, the men nearest had a glimpse of the interior of
the car. On the far side was a long object huddled in blankets, propped
up on the seat.

Before he got in the major leaned over and pulled a woollen rug out,
holding it away from him with his one good arm. The car moved off
slowly, and all down the village street the men, lined up waiting for
orders, stared curiously at the three jagged holes in the door.

The lieutenant looked at the rug that lay in the middle of the road. He
touched it with his foot. It was soaked with blood that in places had
dried into clots.

The lieutenant and the men of his company looked at it in silence. The
sun had risen and shone on the roofs of the little whitewashed houses
behind them. Far down the road a regiment had begun to move.


At the brow of the hill they rested. Chrisfield sat on the red clay bank
and looked about him, his rifle between his knees. In front of him
on the side of the road was a French burying ground, where the little
wooden crosses, tilting in every direction, stood up against the sky,
and the bead wreaths glistened in the warm sunlight. All down the road
as far as he could see was a long drab worm, broken in places by strings
of motor trucks, a drab worm that wriggled down the slope, through the
roofless shell of the village and up into the shattered woods on the
crest of the next hills. Chrisfield strained his eyes to see the hills
beyond. They lay blue and very peaceful in the moon mist. The river
glittered about the piers of the wrecked stone bridge, and disappeared
between rows of yellow poplars. Somewhere in the valley a big gun fired.
The shell shrieked into the distance, towards the blue, peaceful hills.

Chrisfield's regiment was moving again. The men, their feet slipping
in the clayey mud, went downhill with long strides, the straps of their
packs tugging at their shoulders.

"Isn't this great country?" said Andrews, who marched beside him.

"Ah'd liever be at an O. T. C. like that bastard Anderson."

"Oh, to hell with that," said Andrews. He still had a big faded orange
marigold in one of the buttonholes of his soiled tunic. He walked with
his nose in the air and his nostrils dilated, enjoying the tang of the
autumnal sunlight.

Chrisfield took the cigarette, that had gone out half-smoked, from his
mouth and spat savagely at the heels of the man in front of him.

"This ain't no life for a white man," he said.

"I'd rather be this than... than that," said Andrews bitterly. He tossed
his head in the direction of a staff car full of officers that was
stalled at the side of the road. They were drinking something out of
a thermos bottle that they passed round with the air of Sunday
excursionists. They waved, with a conscious relaxation of discipline, at
the men as they passed. One, a little lieutenant with a black mustache
with pointed ends, kept crying: "They're running like rabbits, fellers;
they're running like rabbits." A wavering half-cheer would come from the
column now and then where it was passing the staff car.

The big gun fired again. Chrisfield was near it this time and felt the
concussion like a blow in the head.

"Some baby," said the man behind him.

Someone was singing:

"Good morning, mister Zip Zip Zip,
With your hair cut just as short as,
With your hair cut just as short as,
With your hair cut just as short as mi-ine."

Everybody took it up. Their steps rang in rhythm in the paved street
that zigzagged among the smashed houses of the village. Ambulances
passed them, big trucks full of huddled men with grey faces, from which
came a smell of sweat and blood and carbolic. Somebody went on:

"O ashes to ashes
An' dust to dust..."

"Can that," cried Judkins, "it ain't lucky."

But everybody had taken up the song. Chrisfield noticed that Andrews's
eyes were sparkling. "If he ain't the damnedest," he thought to himself.
But he shouted at the top of his lungs with the rest:

"O ashes to ashes
An' dust to dust;
If the gasbombs don't get yer
The eighty-eights must."

They were climbing the hill again. The road was worn into deep ruts and
there were many shell holes, full of muddy water, into which their feet
slipped. The woods began, a shattered skeleton of woods, full of old
artillery emplacements and dugouts, where torn camouflage fluttered from
splintered trees. The ground and the road were littered with tin cans
and brass shell-cases. Along both sides of the road the trees were
festooned, as with creepers, with strand upon strand of telephone wire.

When next they stopped Chrisfield was on the crest of the hill beside a
battery of French seventy-fives. He looked curiously at the Frenchmen,
who sat about on logs in their pink and blue shirtsleeves playing cards
and smoking. Their gestures irritated him.

"Say, tell 'em we're advancin'," he said to Andrews.

"Are we?" said Andrews. "All right.... Dites-donc, les Boches
courent-ils comme des lapins?" he shouted.

One of the men turned his head and laughed.

"He says they've been running that way for four years," said Andrews.
He slipped his pack off, sat down on it, and fished for a cigarette.
Chrisfield took off his helmet and rubbed a muddy hand through his hair.
He took a bite of chewing tobacco and sat with his hands clasped over
his knees.

"How the hell long are we going to wait this time?" he muttered. The
shadows of the tangled and splintered trees crept slowly across the
road. The French artillerymen were eating their supper. A long train of
motor trucks growled past, splashing mud over the men crowded along
the sides of the road. The sun set, and a lot of batteries down in the
valley began firing, making it impossible to talk. The air was full of
a shrieking and droning of shells overhead. The Frenchmen stretched
and yawned and went down into their dugout. Chrisfield watched them
enviously. The stars were beginning to come out in the green sky behind
the tall lacerated trees. Chrisfield's legs ached with cold. He began
to get crazily anxious for something to happen, for something to happen,
but the column waited, without moving, through the gathering darkness.
Chrisfield chewed steadily, trying to think of nothing but the taste of
the tobacco in his mouth.

The column was moving again; as they reached the brow of another hill
Chrisfield felt a curious sweetish smell that made his nostrils smart.
"Gas," he thought, full of panic, and put his hand to the mask that hung
round his neck. But he did not want to be the first to put it on. No
order came. He marched on, cursing the sergeant and the lieutenant. But
maybe they'd been killed by it. He had a vision of the whole regiment
sinking down in the road suddenly, overcome by the gas.

"Smell anythin', Andy?" he whispered cautiously.

"I can smell a combination of dead horses and tube roses and banana
oil and the ice cream we used to have at college and dead rats in the
garret, but what the hell do we care now?" said Andrews, giggling. "This
is the damnedest fool business ever...."

"He's crazy," muttered Chrisfield to himself. He looked at the stars
in the black sky that seemed to be going along with the column on its

Online LibraryJohn Dos PassosThree Soldiers → online text (page 12 of 31)