John Dos Passos.

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to make a feller feel fit. Why, after bein' out late the night before,
we'd jump up out of bed at three o'clock feeling springy as a cat."

"What's he doing now?" asked Andrews.

"He died on the transport coming 'cross here. Died of the flu.... I met
a feller came over in his regiment. They dropped him overboard when
they were in sight of the Azores.... Well, I didn't die of the flu. Have
another butt?"

"No, thanks," said Andrews.

They were silent. The fire roared in the stove. No one was talking. The
men lolled in chairs somnolently. Now and then someone spat. Outside of
the window Andrews could see the soft white dancing of the snowflakes.
His limbs felt very heavy; his mind was permeated with dusty stagnation
like the stagnation of old garrets and lumber rooms, where, among
superannuated bits of machinery and cracked grimy crockery, lie heaps of
broken toys.

John Andrews sat on a bench in a square full of linden trees, with the
pale winter sunshine full on his face and hands. He had been looking up
through his eyelashes at the sun, that was the color of honey, and he
let his dazzled glance sink slowly through the black lacework of twigs,
down the green trunks of the trees to the bench opposite where sat two
nursemaids and, between them, a tiny girl with a face daintily colored
and lifeless like a doll's face, and a frilled dress under which showed
small ivory knees and legs encased in white socks and yellow sandals.
Above the yellow halo of her hair floated, with the sun shining through
it, as through a glass of claret, a bright carmine balloon which
the child held by a string. Andrews looked at her for a long time,
enraptured by the absurd daintiness of the figure between the big
bundles of flesh of the nursemaids. The thought came to him suddenly
that months had gone by, - was it only months? - since his hands had
touched anything soft, since he had seen any flowers. The last was a
flower an old woman had given him in a village in the Argonne, an orange
marigold, and he remembered how soft the old woman's withered lips had
been against his cheek when she had leaned over and kissed him. His
mind suddenly lit up, as with a strain of music, with a sense of the
sweetness of quiet lives worn away monotonously in the fields, in the
grey little provincial towns, in old kitchens full of fragrance of
herbs and tang of smoke from the hearth, where there are pots on the
window-sill full of basil in flower.

Something made him go up to the little girl and take her hand. The
child, looking up suddenly and seeing a lanky soldier with pale lean
face and light, straw-colored hair escaping from under a cap too small
for him, shrieked and let go the string of the balloon, which soared
slowly into the air trembling a little in the faint cool wind that
blew. The child wailed dismally, and Andrews, quailing under the furious
glances of the nursemaids, stood before her, flushed crimson, stammering
apologies, not knowing what to do. The white caps of the nursemaids
bent over and ribbons fluttered about the child's head as they tried to
console her. Andrews walked away dejectedly, now and then looking up
at the balloon, which soared, a black speck against the grey and
topaz-colored clouds.

"Sale Americain!" he heard one nursemaid exclaim to the other. But
this was the first hour in months he had had free, the first moment of
solitude; he must live; soon he would be sent back to his division. A
wave of desire for furious fleshly enjoyments went through him, making
him want steaming dishes of food drenched in rich, spice-flavored
sauces; making him want to get drunk on strong wine; to roll on thick
carpets in the arms of naked, libidinous women. He was walking down the
quiet grey street of the provincial town, with its low houses with red
chimney pots, and blue slate roofs and its irregular yellowish cobbles.
A clock somewhere was striking four with deep booming strokes, Andrews
laughed. He had to be in hospital at six. Already he was tired; his legs

The window of a pastry shop appeared invitingly before him, denuded as
it was by wartime. A sign in English said: "Tea." Walking in, he sat
down in a fussy little parlor where the tables had red cloths, and
a print, in pinkish and greenish colors, hung in the middle of the
imitation brocade paper of each wall. Under a print of a poster bed with
curtains in front of which eighteen to twenty people bowed, with the
title of "Secret d'Amour," sat three young officers, who cast cold,
irritated glances at this private with a hospital badge on who invaded
their tea shop. Andrews stared back at them, flaming with dull anger.

Sipping the hot, fragrant tea, he sat with a blank sheet of music paper
before him, listening in spite of himself to what the officers were
saying. They were talking about Ronsard. It was with irritated surprise
that Andrews heard the name. What right had they to be talking about
Ronsard? He knew more about Ronsard than they did. Furious, conceited
phrases kept surging up in his mind. He was as sensitive, as humane, as
intelligent, as well-read as they were; what right had they to the cold
suspicious glance with which they had put him in his place when he
had come into the room? Yet that had probably been as unconscious, as
unavoidable as was his own biting envy. The thought that if one of those
men should come over to him, he would have to stand up and salute and
answer humbly, not from civility, but from the fear of being punished,
was bitter as wormwood, filled him with a childish desire - to prove his
worth to them, as when older boys had illtreated him at school and he
had prayed to have the house burn down so that he might heroically save
them all. There was a piano in an inner room, where in the dark the
chairs, upside down, perched dismally on the table tops. He almost
obeyed an impulse to go in there and start playing, by the brilliance
of his playing to force these men, who thought of him as a coarse
automaton, something between a man and a dog, to recognize him as an
equal, a superior.

"But the war's over. I want to start living. Red wine, streets of the
nightingale cries to the rose," said one of the officers.

"What do you say we go A.W.O.L. to Paris?"


"Well, what can they do? We are not enlisted men; they can only send us
home. That's just what I want."

"I'll tell you what; we'll go to the Cochon Bleu and have a cocktail and
think about it."

"The lion and the lizard keep their courts where... what the devil was
his name? Anyway, we'll glory and drink deep, while Major Peabody keeps
his court in Dijon to his heart's content."

Spurs jingled as the three officers went out. A fierce disgust took
possession of John Andrews. He was ashamed of his spiteful irritation.
If, when he had been playing the piano to a roomful of friends in New
York, a man dressed as a laborer had shambled in, wouldn't he have felt
a moment of involuntary scorn? It was inevitable that the fortunate
should hate the unfortunate because they feared them. But he was so
tired of all those thoughts. Drinking down the last of his tea at a
gulp, he went into the shop to ask the old woman, with little black
whiskers over her bloodless lips, who sat behind the white desk at the
end of the counter, if she minded his playing the piano.

In the deserted tea room, among the dismal upturned chairs, his
crassened fingers moved stiffly over the keys. He forgot everything
else. Locked doors in his mind were swinging wide, revealing forgotten
sumptuous halls of his imagination. The Queen of Sheba, grotesque as a
satyr, white and flaming with worlds of desire, as the great implacable
Aphrodite, stood with her hand on his shoulder sending shivers of warm
sweetness rippling through his body, while her voice intoned in his ears
all the inexhaustible voluptuousness of life.

An asthmatic clock struck somewhere in the obscurity of the room.
"Seven!" John Andrews paid, said good-bye to the old woman with the
mustache, and hurried out into the street. "Like Cinderella at the
ball," he thought. As he went towards the hospital, down faintly lighted
streets, his steps got slower and slower. "Why go back?" a voice kept
saying inside him. "Anything is better than that." Better throw himself
in the river, even, than go back. He could see the olive-drab clothes
in a heap among the dry bullrushes on the river bank.... He thought
of himself crashing naked through the film of ice into water black as
Chinese lacquer. And when he climbed out numb and panting on the other
side, wouldn't he be able to take up life again as if he had just been
born? How strong he would be if he could begin life a second time! How
madly, how joyously he would live now that there was no more war.... He
had reached the door of the hospital. Furious shudders of disgust went
through him.

He was standing dumbly humble while a sergeant bawled him out for being

Andrews stared for a long while at the line of shields that supported
the dark ceiling beams on the wall opposite his cot. The emblems
had been erased and the grey stone figures that crowded under the
shields, - the satyr with his shaggy goat's legs, the townsman with
his square hat, the warrior with the sword between his legs, - had been
clipped and scratched long ago in other wars. In the strong afternoon
light they were so dilapidated he could hardly make them out. He
wondered how they had seemed so vivid to him when he had lain in his
cot, comforted by their comradeship, while his healing wounds itched and
tingled. Still he glanced tenderly at the grey stone figures as he left
the ward.

Downstairs in the office where the atmosphere was stuffy with a smell
of varnish and dusty papers and cigarette smoke, he waited a long time,
shifting his weight restlessly from one foot to the other.

"What do you want?" said a red-haired sergeant, without looking up from
the pile of papers on his desk.

"Waiting for travel orders."

"Aren't you the guy I told to come back at three?"

"It is three."

"H'm!" The sergeant kept his eyes fixed on the papers, which rustled
as he moved them from one pile to another. In the end of the room a
typewriter clicked slowly and jerkily. Andrews could see the dark back
of a head between bored shoulders in a woolen shirt leaning over the
machine. Beside the cylindrical black stove against the wall a man with
large mustaches and the complicated stripes of a hospital sergeant was
reading a novel in a red cover. After a long silence the red-headed
sergeant looked up from his papers and said suddenly:


The man at the typewriter turned slowly round, showing a large red face
and blue eyes.

"We-ell," he drawled.

"Go in an' see if the loot has signed them papers yet."

The man got up, stretched himself deliberately, and slouched out through
a door beside the stove. The red-haired sergeant leaned back in his
swivel chair and lit a cigarette.

"Hell," he said, yawning.

The man with the mustache beside the stove let the book slip from his
knees to the floor, and yawned too.

"This goddam armistice sure does take the ambition out of a feller," he

"Hell of a note," said the red-haired sergeant. "D'you know that they
had my name in for an O.T.C.? Hell of a note goin' home without a Sam

The other man came back and sank down into his chair in front of the
typewriter again. The slow, jerky clicking recommenced.

Andrews made a scraping noise with his foot on the ground.

"Well, what about that travel order?" said the red-haired sergeant.

"Loot's out," said the other man, still typewriting.

"Well, didn't he leave it on his desk?" shouted the red-haired sergeant

"Couldn't find it."

"I suppose I've got to go look for it.... God!" The red-haired sergeant
stamped out of the room. A moment later he came back with a bunch of
papers in his hand.

"Your name Jones?" he snapped to Andrews.



"No.... Andrews, John."

"Why the hell couldn't you say so?"

The man with the mustaches beside the stove got to his feet suddenly. An
alert, smiling expression came over his face.

"Good afternoon, Captain Higginsworth," he said cheerfully.

An oval man with a cigar slanting out of his broad mouth came into the
room. When he talked the cigar wobbled in his mouth. He wore greenish
kid gloves, very tight for his large hands, and his puttees shone with a
dark lustre like mahogany.

The red-haired sergeant turned round and half-saluted.

"Goin' to another swell party, Captain?" he asked.

The Captain grinned.

"Say, have you boys got any Red Cross cigarettes? I ain't only got
cigars, an' you can't hand a cigar to a lady, can you?" The Captain
grinned again. An appreciative giggle went round.

"Will a couple of packages do you? Because I've got some here," said the
red-haired sergeant reaching in the drawer of his desk.

"Fine." The captain slipped them into his pocket and swaggered out doing
up the buttons of his buff-colored coat.

The sergeant settled himself at his desk again with an important smile.

"Did you find the travel order?" asked Andrews timidly. "I'm supposed to
take the train at four-two."

"Can't make it.... Did you say your name was Anderson?"

"Andrews.... John Andrews."

"Here it is.... Why didn't you come earlier?"

The sharp air of the ruddy winter evening, sparkling in John Andrews's
nostrils, vastly refreshing after the stale odors of the hospital, gave
him a sense of liberation. Walking with rapid steps through the grey
streets of the town, where in windows lamps already glowed orange, he
kept telling himself that another epoch was closed. It was with relief
that he felt that he would never see the hospital again or any of the
people in it. He thought of Chrisfield. It was weeks and weeks since
Chrisfield had come to his mind at all. Now it was with a sudden clench
of affection that the Indiana boy's face rose up before him. An oval,
heavily-tanned face with a little of childish roundness about it yet,
with black eyebrows and long black eyelashes. But he did not even know
if Chrisfield were still alive. Furious joy took possession of him. He,
John Andrews, was alive; what did it matter if everyone he knew died?
There were jollier companions than ever he had known, to be found in the
world, cleverer people to talk to, more vigorous people to learn from.
The cold air circulated through his nose and lungs; his arms felt strong
and supple; he could feel the muscles of his legs stretch and contract
as he walked, while his feet beat jauntily on the irregular cobblestones
of the street. The waiting room at the station was cold and stuffy, full
of a smell of breathed air and unclean uniforms. French soldiers wrapped
in their long blue coats, slept on the benches or stood about in groups,
eating bread and drinking from their canteens. A gas lamp in the center
gave dingy light. Andrews settled himself in a corner with despairing
resignation. He had five hours to wait for a train, and already his
legs ached and he had a side feeling of exhaustion. The exhilaration of
leaving the hospital and walking free through wine-tinted streets in
the sparkling evening air gave way gradually to despair. His life would
continue to be this slavery of unclean bodies packed together in
places where the air had been breathed over and over, cogs in the great
slow-moving Juggernaut of armies. What did it matter if the fighting had
stopped? The armies would go on grinding out lives with lives, crushing
flesh with flesh. Would he ever again stand free and solitary to
live out joyous hours which would make up for all the boredom of the
treadmill? He had no hope. His life would continue like this dingy,
ill-smelling waiting room where men in uniform slept in the fetid air
until they should be ordered-out to march or to stand in motionless
rows, endlessly, futilely, like toy soldiers a child has forgotten in an

Andrews got up suddenly and went out on the empty platform. A cold wind
blew. Somewhere out in the freight yards an engine puffed loudly, and
clouds of white steam drifted through the faintly lighted station. He
was walking up and down with his chin sunk into his coat and his hands
in his pockets, when somebody ran into him.

"Damn," said a voice, and the figure darted through a grimy glass door
that bore the sign: "Buvette." Andrews followed absent-mindedly.

"I'm sorry I ran into you.... I thought you were an M.P., that's why I
beat it." When he spoke, the man, an American private, turned and looked
searchingly in Andrews's face. He had very red cheeks and an impudent
little brown mustache. He spoke slowly with a faint Bostonian drawl.

"That's nothing," said Andrews.

"Let's have a drink," said the other man. "I'm A.W.O.L. Where are you

"To some place near Bar-le-Duc, back to my Division. Been in hospital."


"Since October."

"Gee.... Have some Curacoa. It'll do you good. You look pale.... My
name's Henslowe. Ambulance with the French Army."

They sat down at an unwashed marble table where the soot from the trains
made a pattern sticking to the rings left by wine and liqueur glasses.

"I'm going to Paris," said Henslowe. "My leave expired three days
ago. I'm going to Paris and get taken ill with peritonitis or double
pneumonia, or maybe I'll have a cardiac lesion.... The army's a bore."

"Hospital isn't any better," said Andrews with a sigh. "Though I shall
never forget the night with which I realized I was wounded and out of
it. I thought I was bad enough to be sent home."

"Why, I wouldn't have missed a minute of the war.... But now that it's
over...Hell! Travel is the password now. I've just had two weeks in
the Pyrenees. Nimes, Arles, Les Baux, Carcassonne, Perpignan, Lourdes,
Gavarnie, Toulouse! What do you think of that for a trip?... What were
you in?"


"Must have been hell."

"Been! It is."

"Why don't you come to Paris with me?"

"I don't want to be picked up," stammered Andrews.

"Not a chance.... I know the ropes.... All you have to do is keep away
from the Olympia and the railway stations, walk fast and keep your shoes
shined... and you've got wits, haven't you?"

"Not many.... Let's drink a bottle of wine. Isn't there anything to eat
to be got here?"

"Not a damn thing, and I daren't go out of the station on account of the
M.P. at the gate.... There'll be a diner on the Marseilles express."

"But I can't go to Paris."

"Sure.... Look, how do you call yourself?"

"John Andrews."

"Well, John Andrews, all I can say is that you've let 'em get your goat.
Don't give in. Have a good time, in spite of 'em. To hell with 'em."
He brought the bottle down so hard on the table that it broke and the
purple wine flowed over the dirty marble and dripped gleaming on the

Some French soldiers who stood in a group round the bar turned round.

"V'la un gars qui gaspille le bon vin," said a tall red-faced man, with
long sloping whiskers.

"Pour vingt sous j'mangerai la bouteille," cried a little man lurching
forward and leaning drunkenly over the table.

"Done," said Henslowe. "Say, Andrews, he says he'll eat the bottle for a

He placed a shining silver franc on the table beside the remnants of
the broken bottle. The man seized the neck of the bottle in a black,
claw-like hand and gave it a preparatory flourish. He was a cadaverous
little man, incredibly dirty, with mustaches and beard of a moth-eaten
tow-color, and a purple flush on his cheeks. His uniform was clotted
with mud. When the others crowded round him and tried to dissuade him,
he said: "M'en fous, c'est mon metier," and rolled his eyes so that the
whites flashed in the dim light like the eyes of dead codfish.

"Why, he's really going to do it," cried Henslowe.

The man's teeth flashed and crunched down on the jagged edge of
the glass. There was a terrific crackling noise. He flourished the
bottle-end again.

"My God, he's eating it," cried Henslowe, roaring with laughter, "and
you're afraid to go to Paris."

An engine rumbled into the station, with a great hiss of escaping steam.

"Gee, that's the Paris train! Tiens!" He pressed the franc into the
man's dirt-crusted hand.

"Come along, Andrews."

As they left the buvette they heard again the crunching crackling noise
as the man bit another piece off the bottle.

Andrews followed Henslowe across the steam-filled platform to the door
of a first-class carriage. They climbed in. Henslowe immediately pulled
down the black cloth over the half globe of the light. The compartment
was empty. He threw himself down with a sigh of comfort on the soft
buff-colored cushions of the seat.

"But what on earth?" stammered Andrews.

"M'en fous, c'est mon metier," interrupted Henslowe.

The train pulled out of the station.


Henslowe poured wine from a brown earthen crock into the glasses, where
it shimmered a bright thin red, the color of currants. Andrews leaned
back in his chair and looked through half-closed eyes at the table with
its white cloth and little burnt umber loaves of bread, and out of the
window at the square dimly lit by lemon-yellow gas lamps and at the dark
gables of the little houses that huddled round it.

At a table against the wall opposite a lame boy, with white beardless
face and gentle violet-colored eyes, sat very close to the bareheaded
girl who was with him and who never took her eyes off his face, leaning
on his crutch all the while. A stove hummed faintly in the middle of the
room, and from the half-open kitchen door came ruddy light and the sound
of something frying. On the wall, in brownish colors that seemed to have
taken warmth from all the rich scents of food they had absorbed since
the day of their painting, were scenes of the Butte as it was fancied to
have once been, with windmills and wide fields.

"I want to travel," Henslowe was saying, dragging out his words
drowsily. "Abyssinia, Patagonia, Turkestan, the Caucasus, anywhere and
everywhere. What do you say you and I go out to New Zealand and raise

"But why not stay here? There can't be anywhere as wonderful as this."

"Then I'll put off starting for New Guinea for a week. But hell, I'd
go crazy staying anywhere after this. It's got into my blood... all
this murder. It's made a wanderer of me, that's what it's done. I'm an

"God, I wish it had made me into anything so interesting."

"Tie a rock on to your scruples and throw 'em off the Pont Neuf and set
out.... O boy, this is the golden age for living by your wits."

"You're not out of the army yet."

"I should worry.... I'll join the Red Cross."


"I've got a tip about it."

A girl with oval face and faint black down on her upper lip brought
them soup, a thick greenish colored soup, that steamed richly into their

"If you tell me how I can get out of the army you'll probably save my
life," said Andrews seriously.

"There are two ways...Oh, but let me tell you later. Let's talk about
something worth while...So you write music do you?"

Andrews nodded.

An omelet lay between them, pale golden-yellow with flecks of green; a
few amber bubbles of burnt butter still clustered round the edges.

"Talk about tone-poems," said Henslowe.

"But, if you are an adventurer and have no scruples, how is it you are
still a private?"

Henslowe took a gulp of wine and laughed uproariously.

"That's the joke."

They ate in silence for a little while. They could hear the couple
opposite them talking in low soft voices. The stove purred, and from the
kitchen came a sound of something being beaten in a bowl. Andrews leaned
back in his chair.

"This is so wonderfully quiet and mellow," he said.... "It is so easy to
forget that there's any joy at all in life."

"Rot...It's a circus parade."

"Have you ever seen anything drearier than a circus parade? One of those
jokes that aren't funny."

"Justine, encore du vin," called Henslowe.

"So you know her name?"

"I live here.... The Butte is the boss on the middle of the shield. It's
the axle of the wheel. That's why it's so quiet, like the centre of a
cyclone, of a vast whirling rotary circus parade!"

Justine, with her red hands that had washed so many dishes off which
other people had dined well, put down between them a scarlet langouste,
of which claws and feelers sprawled over the tablecloth that already had
a few purplish stains of wine. The sauce was yellow and fluffy like the
breast of a canary bird.

"D'you know," said Andrews suddenly talking fast and excitedly while

Online LibraryJohn Dos PassosThree Soldiers → online text (page 16 of 31)