John Dos Passos.

Three Soldiers online

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a man who has drunk a great deal, holding on tight to the reins of his
will, suddenly gives himself over pellmell to drunkenness.

He lay very still, with his eyes closed, listening to the stir of the
ward, the voices of men talking and the fits of coughing that shook the
man next him. The smarting pain throbbed monotonously. He felt hungry
and wondered vaguely if it were supper time. How little they gave you to
eat in the hospital!

He called over to the man in the opposite cot:

"Hay, Stalky, what time is it?"

"It's after messtime now. Got a good appetite for the steak and onions
and French fried potatoes?"

"Shut up."

A rattling of tin dishes at the other end of the ward made Andrews
wriggle up further on his pillow. Verses from the "Shropshire Lad"
jingled mockingly through his head:

"The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew."

After he had eaten, he picked up the "Tentation de Saint Antoine," that
lay on the cot beside his immovable legs, and buried himself in it,
reading the gorgeously modulated sentences voraciously, as if the book
were a drug in which he could drink deep forgetfulness of himself.

He put the book down and closed his eyes. His mind was full of
intangible floating glow, like the ocean on a warm night, when every
wave breaks into pale flame, and mysterious milky lights keep rising to
the surface out of the dark waters and gleaming and vanishing. He became
absorbed in the strange fluid harmonies that permeated his whole body,
as a grey sky at nightfall suddenly becomes filled with endlessly
changing patterns of light and color and shadow.

When he tried to seize hold of his thoughts, to give them definite
musical expression in his mind, he found himself suddenly empty, the
way a sandy inlet on the beach that has been full of shoals of silver
fishes, becomes suddenly empty when a shadow crosses the water, and
the man who is watching sees wanly his own reflection instead of the
flickering of thousands of tiny silver bodies.

John Andrews awoke to feel a cold hand on his head.

"Feeling all right?" said a voice in his ear.

He found himself looking in a puffy, middle-aged face, with a lean nose
and grey eyes, with dark rings under them. Andrews felt the eyes looking
him over inquisitively. He saw the red triangle on the man's khaki

"Yes," he said.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to talk to you a little while, buddy."

"Not a bit; have you got a chair?" said Andrews smiling.

"I don't suppose it was just right of me to wake you up, but you see it
was this way.... You were the next in line, an' I was afraid I'd forget
you, if I skipped you."

"I understand," said Andrews, with a sudden determination to take the
initiative away from the "Y" man.

"How long have you been in France? D'you like the war?" he asked

The "Y" man smiled sadly.

"You seem pretty spry," he said. "I guess you're in a hurry to get back
at the front and get some more Huns." He smiled again, with an air of

Andrews did not answer.

"No, sonny, I don't like it here," the "Y" man said, after a pause. "I
wish I was home - but it's great to feel you're doing your duty."

"It must be," said Andrews.

"Have you heard about the great air raids our boys have pulled off?
They've bombarded Frankfort; now if they could only wipe Berlin off the

"Say, d'you hate 'em awful hard?" said Andrews in a low voice. "Because,
if you do, I can tell you something will tickle you most to death....
Lean over."

The "Y" man leant over curiously. "Some German prisoners come to this
hospital at six every night to get the garbage; now all you need to
do if you really hate 'em so bad is borrow a revolver from one of your
officer friends, and just shoot up the convoy...."

"Say... where were you raised, boy?" The "Y" man sat up suddenly with a
look of alarm on his face. "Don't you know that prisoners are sacred?"

"D'you know what our colonel told us before going into the Argonne
offensive? The more prisoners we took, the less grub there'ld be; and do
you know what happened to the prisoners that were taken? Why do you hate
the Huns?"

"Because they are barbarians, enemies of civilization. You must have
enough education to know that," said the "Y" man, raising his voice
angrily. "What church do you belong to?"


"But you must have been connected with some church, boy. You can't
have been raised a heathen in America. Every Christian belongs or has
belonged to some church or other from baptism."

"I make no pretensions to Christianity."

Andrews closed his eyes and turned his head away. He could feel the "Y"
man hovering over him irresolutely. After a while he opened his eyes.
The "Y" man was leaning over the next bed.

Through the window at the opposite side of the ward he could see a
bit of blue sky among white scroll-like clouds, with mauve shadows. He
stared at it until the clouds, beginning to grow golden into evening,
covered it. Furious, hopeless irritation consumed him. How these people
enjoyed hating! At that rate it was better to be at the front. Men
were more humane when they were killing each other than when they were
talking about it. So was civilization nothing but a vast edifice of
sham, and the war, instead of its crumbling, was its fullest and most
ultimate expression. Oh, but there must be something more in the world
than greed and hatred and cruelty. Were they all shams, too, these
gigantic phrases that floated like gaudy kites high above mankind?
Kites, that was it, contraptions of tissue paper held at the end of a
string, ornaments not to be taken seriously. He thought of all the long
procession of men who had been touched by the unutterable futility of
the lives of men, who had tried by phrases to make things otherwise, who
had taught unworldliness. Dim enigmatic figures they were - Democritus,
Socrates, Epicurus, Christ; so many of them, and so vague in the
silvery mist of history that he hardly knew that they were not his own
imagining; Lucretius, St. Francis, Voltaire, Rousseau, and how many
others, known and unknown, through the tragic centuries; they had wept,
some of them, and some of them had laughed, and their phrases had risen
glittering, soap bubbles to dazzle men for a moment, and had shattered.
And he felt a crazy desire to join the forlorn ones, to throw himself
into inevitable defeat, to live his life as he saw it in spite of
everything, to proclaim once more the falseness of the gospels under
the cover of which greed and fear filled with more and yet more pain the
already unbearable agony of human life.

As soon as he got out of the hospital he would desert; the determination
formed suddenly in his mind, making the excited blood surge gloriously
through his body. There was nothing else to do; he would desert. He
pictured himself hobbling away in the dark on his lame legs, stripping
his uniform off, losing himself in some out of the way corner of France,
or slipping by the sentries to Spain and freedom. He was ready to endure
anything, to face any sort of death, for the sake of a few months of
liberty in which to forget the degradation of this last year. This was
his last run with the pack.

An enormous exhilaration took hold of him. It seemed the first time in
his life he had ever determined to act. All the rest had been
aimless drifting. The blood sang m his ears. He fixed his eyes on the
half-obliterated figures that supported the shields under the beams in
the wall opposite. They seemed to be wriggling out of their contorted
positions and smiling encouragement to him. He imagined them, warriors
out of old tales, on their way to clay dragons in enchanted woods,
clever-fingered guildsmen and artisans, cupids and satyrs and fauns,
jumping from their niches and carrying him off with them in a headlong
rout, to a sound of flutes, on a last forlorn assault on the citadels of

The lights went out, and an orderly came round with chocolate that
poured with a pleasant soothing sound into the tin cups. With a
greasiness of chocolate in his mouth and the warmth of it in his
stomach, John Andrews went to sleep.

There was a stir in the ward when he woke up. Reddish sunlight filtered
in through the window opposite, and from outside came a confused noise,
a sound of bells ringing and whistles blowing. Andrews looked past his
feet towards Stalky's cot opposite. Stalky was sitting bolt upright in
bed, with his eyes round as quarters.

"Fellers, the war's over!"

"Put him out."

"Cut that."

"Pull the chain."

"Tie that bull outside," came from every side of the ward.

"Fellers," shouted Stalky louder than ever, "it's straight dope, the
war's over. I just dreamt the Kaiser came up to me on Fourteenth Street
and bummed a nickel for a glass of beer. The war's over. Don't you hear
the whistles?"

"All right; let's go home."

"Shut up, can't you let a feller sleep?"

The ward quieted down again, but all eyes were wide open, men lay
strangely still in their cots, waiting, wondering.

"All I can say," shouted Stalky again, "is that she was some war while
she lasted.... What did I tell yer?"

As he spoke the canvas screen in front of the door collapsed and the
major appeared with his cap askew over his red face and a brass bell in
his hand, which he rang frantically as he advanced into the ward.

"Men," he shouted in the deep roar of one announcing baseball scores,
"the war ended at 4:03 A.M. this morning.... The Armistice is signed.
To hell with the Kaiser!" Then he rang the dinner bell madly and danced
along the aisle between the rows of cots, holding the head nurse by one
hand, who held a little yellow-headed lieutenant by the other hand, who,
in turn, held another nurse, and so on. The line advanced jerkily into
the ward; the front part was singing "The Star Spangled Banner," and the
rear the "Yanks are Coming," and through it all the major rang his brass
bell. The men who were well enough sat up in bed and yelled. The others
rolled restlessly about, sickened by the din.

They made the circuit of the ward and filed out, leaving confusion
behind them. The dinner bell could be heard faintly in the other parts
of the building.

"Well, what d'you think of it, undertaker?" said Andrews.



The undertaker turned his small black eyes on Andrews and looked him
straight in the face.

"You know what's the matter with me, don't yer, outside o' this wound?"


"Coughing like I am, I'd think you'd be more observant. I got t.b.,
young feller."

"How do you know that?"

"They're going to move me out o' here to a t.b. ward tomorrow."

"The hell they are!" Andrews's words were lost in the paroxysm of
coughing that seized the man next to him.

"Home, boys, home; it's home we want to be."

Those well enough were singing, Stalky conducting, standing on the end
of his cot in his pink Red Cross pajamas, that were too short and showed
a long expanse of skinny leg, fuzzy with red hairs. He banged together
two bed pans to beat time.

"Home.... I won't never go home," said the undertaker when the noise had
subsided a little. "D'you know what I wish? I wish the war'd gone on and
on until everyone of them bastards had been killed in it."

"Which bastards?"

"The men who got us fellers over here." He began coughing again weakly.

"But they'll be safe if every other human being...." began Andrews. He
was interrupted by a thundering voice from the end of the ward.


"Home, boys, home; it's home we want to be."

went on the song. Stalky glanced towards the end of the ward, and seeing
it was the major, dropped the bed pans that smashed at the foot of his
cot, and got as far as possible under his blankets.

"Attention!" thundered the major again. A sudden uncomfortable silence
fell upon the ward; broken only by the coughing of the man next to

"If I hear any more noise from this ward, I'll chuck everyone of you men
out of this hospital; if you can't walk you'll have to crawl.... The war
may be over, but you men are in the Army, and don't you forget it."

The major glared up and down the lines of cots. He turned on his heel
and went out of the door, glancing angrily as he went at the overturned
screen. The ward was still. Outside whistles blew and churchbells rang
madly, and now and then there was a sound of singing.


The snow beat against the windows and pattered on the tin roof of the
lean-to, built against the side of the hospital, that went by the name
of sun parlor. It was a dingy place, decorated by strings of dusty
little paper flags that one of the "Y" men had festooned about the
slanting beams of the ceiling to celebrate Christmas. There were tables
with torn magazines piled on them, and a counter where cracked white
cups were ranged waiting for one of the rare occasions when cocoa could
be bought. In the middle of the room, against the wall of the main
building, a stove was burning, about which sat several men in hospital
denims talking in drowsy voices. Andrews watched them from his seat by
the window, looking at their broad backs bent over towards the stove and
at the hands that hung over their knees, limp from boredom. The air was
heavy with a smell of coal gas mixed with carbolic from men's clothes,
and stale cigarette smoke. Behind the cups at the counter a "Y" man, a
short, red-haired man with freckles, read the Paris edition of the New
York Herald. Andrews, in his seat by the window, felt permeated by the
stagnation about him: He had a sheaf of pencilled music-papers on his
knees, that he rolled and unrolled nervously, staring at the stove and
the motionless backs of the men about it. The stove roared a little,
the "Y" man's paper rustled, men's voices came now and then in a drowsy
whisper, and outside the snow beat evenly and monotonously against the
window panes. Andrews pictured himself vaguely walking fast through the
streets, with the snow stinging his face and the life of a city swirling
about him, faces flushed by the cold, bright eyes under hatbrims,
looking for a second into his and passing on; slim forms of women
bundled in shawls that showed vaguely the outline of their breasts
and hips. He wondered if he would ever be free again to walk at random
through city streets. He stretched his legs out across the floor in
front of him; strange, stiff, tremulous legs they were, but it was not
the wounds that gave them their leaden weight. It was the stagnation
of the life about him that he felt sinking into every crevice of his
spirit, so that he could never shake it off, the stagnation of dusty
ruined automatons that had lost all life of their own, whose limbs had
practised the drill manual so long that they had no movements of their
own left, who sat limply, sunk in boredom, waiting for orders.

Andrews was roused suddenly from his thoughts; he had been watching the
snowflakes in their glittering dance just outside the window pane, when
the sound of someone rubbing his hands very close to him made him look
up. A little man with chubby cheeks and steel-grey hair very neatly
flattened against his skull, stood at the window rubbing his fat little
white hands together and making a faint unctuous puffing with each
breath. Andrews noticed that a white clerical collar enclosed the little
man's pink neck, that starched cuffs peeped from under the well-tailored
sleeves of his officer's uniform. Sam Brown belt and puttees, too,
were highly polished. On his shoulder was a demure little silver cross.
Andrews' glance had reached the pink cheeks again, when he suddenly
found a pair of steely eyes looking sharply into his.

"You look quite restored, my friend," said a chanting clerical voice.

"I suppose I am."

"Splendid, splendid.... But do you mind moving into the end of the
room.... That's it." He followed Andrews, saying in a deprecatory tone:
"We're going to have just a little bit of a prayer and then I have some
interesting things to tell you boys."

The red-headed "Y" man had left his seat and stood in the center of the
room, his paper still dangling from his hand, saying in a bored voice:
"Please fellows, move down to the end.... Quiet, please.... Quiet,

The soldiers shambled meekly to the folding chairs at the end of the
room and after some chattering were quiet. A couple of men left, and
several tiptoed in and sat in the front row. Andrews sank into a chair
with a despairing sort of resignation, and burying his face in his hands
stared at the floor between his feet.

"Fellers," went on the bored voice of the "Y" man, "let me introduce the
Reverend Dr. Skinner, who - " the "Y" man's voice suddenly took on deep
patriotic emotion - "who has just come back from the Army of Occupation
in Germany."

At the words "Army of Occupation," as if a spring had been touched,
everybody clapped and cheered.

The Reverend Dr. Skinner looked about his audience with smiling
confidence and raised his hands for silence, so that the men could see
the chubby pink palms.

"First, boys, my dear friends, let us indulge in a few moments of silent
prayer to our Great Creator," his voice rose and fell in the suave
chant of one accustomed to going through the episcopal liturgy for the
edification of well-dressed and well-fed congregations. "Inasmuch as He
has vouchsafed us safety and a mitigation of our afflictions, and let us
pray that in His good time He may see fit to return us whole in limb and
pure in heart to our families, to the wives, mothers, and to those whom
we will some day honor with the name of wife, who eagerly await our
return; and that we may spend the remainder of our lives in useful
service of the great country for whose safety and glory we have offered
up our youth a willing sacrifice.... Let us pray!"

Silence fell dully on the room. Andrews could hear the selfconscious
breathing of the men about him, and the rustling of the snow against the
tin roof. A few feet scraped. The voice began again after a long pause,

"Our Father which art in Heaven..."

At the "Amen" everyone lifted his head cheerfully. Throats were cleared,
chairs scraped. Men settled themselves to listen.

"Now, my friends, I am going to give you in a few brief words a little
glimpse into Germany, so that you may be able to picture to yourselves
the way your comrades of the Army of Occupation manage to make
themselves comfortable among the Huns.... I ate my Christmas dinner in
Coblenz. What do you think of that? Never had I thought that a Christmas
would find me away from my home and loved ones. But what unexpected
things happen to us in this world! Christmas in Coblenz under the
American flag!"

He paused a moment to allow a little scattered clapping to subside.

"The turkey was fine, too, I can tell you.... Yes, our boys in Germany
are very, very comfortable, and just waiting for the word, if necessary,
to continue their glorious advance to Berlin. For I am sorry to say,
boys, that the Germans have not undergone the change of heart for which
we had hoped. They have, indeed, changed the name of their institutions,
but their spirit they have not changed.... How grave a disappointment it
must be to our great President, who has exerted himself so to bring the
German people to reason, to make them understand the horror that they
alone have brought deliberately upon the world! Alas! Far from it.
Indeed, they have attempted with insidious propaganda to undermine
the morale of our troops...." A little storm of muttered epithets went
through the room. The Reverend Dr. Skinner elevated his chubby pink
palms and smiled benignantly..."to undermine the morale of our troops;
so that the most stringent regulations have had to be made by the
commanding general to prevent it. Indeed, my friends, I very much fear
that we stopped too soon in our victorious advance; that Germany should
have been utterly crushed. But all we can do is watch and wait, and
abide by the decision of those great men who in a short time will be
gathered together at the Conference at Paris.... Let me, boys, my dear
friends, express the hope that you may speedily be cured of your wounds,
ready again to do willing service in the ranks of the glorious army that
must be vigilant for some time yet, I fear, to defend, as Americans and
Christians, the civilization you have so nobly saved from a ruthless
foe.... Let us all join together in singing the hymn, 'Stand up, stand
up for Jesus,' which I am sure you all know."

The men got to their feet, except for a few who had lost their legs, and
sang the first verse of the hymn unsteadily. The second verse petered
out altogether, leaving only the "Y" man and the Reverend Dr. Skinner
singing away at the top of their lungs.

The Reverend Dr. Skinner pulled out his gold watch and looked at it

"Oh, my, I shall miss the train," he muttered. The "Y" man helped him
into his voluminous trench coat and they both hurried out of the door.

"Those are some puttees he had on, I'll tell you," said the legless man
who was propped in a chair near the stove.

Andrews sat down beside him, laughing. He was a man with high cheekbones
and powerful jaws to whose face the pale brown eyes and delicately
pencilled lips gave a look of great gentleness. Andrews did not look at
his body.

"Somebody said he was a Red Cross man giving out cigarettes.... Fooled
us that time," said Andrews.

"Have a butt? I've got one," said the legless man. With a large shrunken
hand that was the transparent color of alabaster he held out a box of

"Thanks." When Andrews struck a match he had to lean over the legless
man to light his cigarette for him. He could not help glancing down the
man's tunic at the drab trousers that hung limply from the chair. A cold
shudder went through him; he was thinking of the zigzag scars on his own

"Did you get it in the legs, too, Buddy?" asked the legless man,

"Yes, but I had luck.... How long have you been here?"

"Since Christ was a corporal. Oh, I doan know. I've been here since two
weeks after my outfit first went into the lines.... That was on November
16th, 1917.... Didn't see much of the war, did I?... Still, I guess I
didn't miss much."

"No.... But you've seen enough of the army."

"That's true.... I guess I wouldn't mind the war if it wasn't for the

"They'll be sending you home soon, won't they?"

"Guess so.... Where are you from?"

"New York," said Andrews.

"I'm from Cranston, Wisconsin. D'you know that country? It's a great
country for lakes. You can canoe for days an' days without a portage.
We have a camp on Big Loon Lake. We used to have some wonderful times
there... lived like wild men. I went for a trip for three weeks once
without seeing a house. Ever done much canoeing?"

"Not so much as I'd like to."

"That's the thing to make you feel fit. First thing you do when you
shake out of your blankets is jump in an' have a swim. Gee, it's great
to swim when the morning mist is still on the water an' the sun just
strikes the tops of the birch trees. Ever smelt bacon cooking? I mean
out in the woods, in a frying pan over some sticks of pine and beech
wood.... Some great old smell, isn't it?... And after you've paddled all
day, an' feel tired and sunburned right to the palms of your feet, to
sit around the fire with some trout roastin' in the ashes and hear the
sizzlin' the bacon makes in the pan.... O boy!" He stretched his arms

"God, I'd like to have wrung that damn little parson's neck," said
Andrews suddenly.

"Would you?" The legless man turned brown eyes on Andrews with a smile.
"I guess he's about as much to blame as anybody is... guys like him.... I
guess they have that kind in Germany, too."

"You don't think we've made the world quite as safe for Democracy as it
might be?" said Andrews in a low voice.

"Hell, how should I know? I bet you never drove an ice wagon.... I did,
all one summer down home.... It was some life. Get up at three o'clock
in the morning an' carry a hundred or two hundred pounds of ice into
everybody's ice box. That was the life to make a feller feel fit. I was
goin' around with a big Norwegian named Olaf, who was the strongest man
I ever knew. An' drink! He was the boy could drink. I once saw him put
away twenty-five dry Martini cocktails an' swim across the lake on top
of it.... I used to weigh a hundred and eighty pounds, and he could pick
me up with one hand and put me across his shoulder.... That was the life

Online LibraryJohn Dos PassosThree Soldiers → online text (page 15 of 31)