John Dos Passos.

Three Soldiers online

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he brushed the straggling yellow hair off his forehead, "I'd almost be
willing to be shot at the end of a year if I could live up here all
that time with a piano and a million sheets of music paper...It would be
worth it."

"But this is a place to come back to. Imagine coming back here after the
highlands of Thibet, where you'd nearly got drowned and scalped and had
made love to the daughter of an Afghan chief... who had red lips smeared
with loukoumi so that the sweet taste stayed in your mouth." Henslowe
stroked softly his little brown mustache.

"But what's the use of just seeing and feeling things if you can't
express them?"

"What's the use of living at all? For the fun of it, man; damn ends."

"But the only profound fun I ever have is that..." Andrews's voice
broke. "O God, I would give up every joy in the world if I could turn
out one page that I felt was adequate.... D'you know it's years since
I've talked to anybody?"

They both stared silently out of the window at the fog that was packed
tightly against it like cotton wool, only softer, and a greenish-gold

"The M.P.'s sure won't get us tonight," said Henslowe, banging his fist
jauntily on the table. "I've a great mind to go to Rue St. Anne and
leave my card on the Provost Marshal.... God damn! D'you remember that
man who took the bite out of our wine-bottle...He didn't give a hoot in
hell, did he? Talk about expression. Why don't you express that? I think
that's the turning point of your career. That's what made you come to
Paris; you can't deny it."

They both laughed loudly rolling about on their chairs.

Andrews caught glints of contagion in the pale violet eyes of the lame
boy and in the dark eyes of the girl.

"Let's tell them about it," he said still laughing, with his face,
bloodless after the months in hospital, suddenly flushed.

"Salut," said Henslowe turning round and elevating his glass. "Nous
rions parceque nous sommes gris de vin gris." Then he told them about
the man who ate glass. He got to his feet and recounted slowly in his
drawling voice, with gestures. Justine stood by with a dish full of
stuffed tomatoes of which the red skins showed vaguely through a mantle
of dark brown sauce. When she smiled her cheeks puffed out and gave her
face a little of the look of a white cat's.

"And you live here?" asked Andrews after they had all laughed.

"Always. It is not often that I go down to town.... It's so
difficult.... I have a withered leg." He smiled brilliantly like a child
telling about a new toy.

"And you?"

"How could I be anywhere else?" answered the girl. "It's a misfortune,
but there it is." She tapped with the crutch on the floor, making a
sound like someone walking with it. The boy laughed and tightened his
arm round her shoulder.

"I should like to live here," said Andrews simply.

"Why don't you?"

"But don't you see he's a soldier," whispered the girl hurriedly.

A frown wrinkled the boy's forehead.

"Well, it wasn't by choice, I suppose," he said.

Andrews was silent. Unaccountable shame took possession of him before
these people who had never been soldiers, who would never be soldiers.

"The Greeks used to say," he said bitterly, using as phrase that had
been a long time on his mind, "that when a man became a slave, on the
first day he lost one-half of his virtue."

"When a man becomes a slave," repeated the lame boy softly, "on the
first day he loses one-half of his virtue."

"What's the use of virtue? It is love you need," said the girl.

"I've eaten your tomato, friend Andrews," said Henslowe. "Justine will
get us some more." He poured out the last of the wine that half filled
each of the glasses with its thin sparkle, the color of red currants.

Outside the fog had blotted everything out in even darkness which grew
vaguely yellow and red near the sparsely scattered street lamps. Andrews
and Henslowe felt their way blindly down the long gleaming flights of
steps that led from the quiet darkness of the Butte towards the confused
lights and noises of more crowded streets. The fog caught in their
throats and tingled in their noses and brushed against their cheeks like
moist hands.

"Why did we go away from that restaurant? I'd like to have talked to
those people some more," said Andrews.

"We haven't had any coffee either.... But, man, we're in Paris. We're
not going to be here long. We can't afford to stay all the time in one
place.... It's nearly closing time already...."

"The boy was a painter. He said he lived by making toys; he whittles out
wooden elephants and camels for Noah's Arks.... Did you hear that?"

They were walking fast down a straight, sloping street. Below them
already appeared the golden glare of a boulevard.

Andrews went on talking, almost to himself. "What a wonderful life that
would be to live up here in a small room that would overlook the great
rosy grey expanse of the city, to have some absurd work like that
to live on, and to spend all your spare time working and going to
concerts.... A quiet mellow existence.... Think of my life beside it.
Slaving in that iron, metallic, brazen New York to write ineptitudes
about music in the Sunday paper. God! And this."

They were sitting down at a table in a noisy cafe, full of yellow light
flashing in eyes and on glasses and bottles, of red lips crushed against
the thin hard rims of glasses.

"Wouldn't you like to just rip it off?" Andrews jerked at his tunic with
both hands where it bulged out over his chest. "Oh, I'd like to make the
buttons fly all over the cafe, smashing the liqueur glasses, snapping
in the faces of all those dandified French officers who look so proud of
themselves that they survived long enough to be victorious."

"The coffee's famous here," said Henslowe. "The only place I ever had it
better was at a bistro in Nice on this last permission."

"Somewhere else again!"

"That's it.... For ever and ever, somewhere else! Let's have some
prunelle. Before the war prunelle."

The waiter was a solemn man, with a beard cut like a prime minister's.
He came with the bottle held out before him, religiously lifted. His
lips pursed with an air of intense application, while he poured the
white glinting liquid into the glasses. When he had finished he held the
bottle upside down with a tragic gesture; not a drop came out.

"It is the end of the good old times," he said.

"Damnation to the good old times," said Henslowe. "Here's to the good
old new roughhousy circus parades."

"I wonder how many people they are good for, those circus parades of
yours," said Andrews.

"Where are you going to spend the night?" said Henslowe.

"I don't know.... I suppose I can find a hotel or something."

"Why don't you come with me and see Berthe; she probably has friends."

"I want to wander about alone, not that I scorn Berthe's friends," said
Andrews...."But I am so greedy for solitude."

John Andrews was walking alone down streets full of drifting fog. Now
and then a taxi dashed past him and clattered off into the obscurity.
Scattered groups of people, their footsteps hollow in the muffling fog,
floated about him. He did not care which way he walked, but went on and
on, crossing large crowded avenues where the lights embroidered patterns
of gold and orange on the fog, rolling in wide deserted squares, diving
into narrow streets where other steps sounded sharply for a second now
and then and faded leaving nothing in his ears when he stopped still
to listen but the city's distant muffled breathing. At last he came
out along the river, where the fog was densest and coldest and where
he could hear faintly the sound of water gurgling past the piers of
bridges. The glow of the lights glared and dimmed, glared and dimmed,
as he walked along, and sometimes he could make out the bare branches
of trees blurred across the halos of the lamps. The fog caressed him
soothingly and shadows kept flicking past him, giving him glimpses of
smooth curves of cheeks and glints of eyes bright from the mist and
darkness. Friendly, familiar people seemed to fill the fog just out of
his sight. The muffled murmur of the city stirred him like the sound of
the voices of friends.

"From the girl at the cross-roads singing under her street-lamp to the
patrician pulling roses to pieces from the height of her litter... all
the imagining of your desire...."

The murmur of life about him kept forming itself into long modulated
sentences in his ears, - sentences that gave him by their form a sense
of quiet well-being as if he were looking at a low relief of people
dancing, carved out of Parian in some workshop in Attica.

Once he stopped and leaned for a long while against the moisture-beaded
stern of a street-lamp. Two shadows defined, as they strolled towards
him, into the forms of a pale boy and a bareheaded girl, walking tightly
laced in each other's arms. The boy limped a little and his violet eyes
were contracted to wistfulness. John Andrews was suddenly filled with
throbbing expectation, as if those two would come up to him and put
their hands on his arms and make some revelation of vast import to his
life. But when they reached the full glow of the lamp, Andrews saw that
he was mistaken. They were not the boy and girl he had talked to on the

He walked off hurriedly and plunged again into tortuous streets, where
he strode over the cobblestone pavements, stopping now and then to peer
through the window of a shop at the light in the rear where a group of
people sat quietly about a table under a light, or into a bar where a
tired little boy with heavy eyelids and sleeves rolled up from thin grey
arms was washing glasses, or an old woman, a shapeless bundle of black
clothes, was swabbing the floor. From doorways he heard talking and soft
laughs. Upper windows sent yellow rays of light across the fog.

In one doorway the vague light from a lamp bracketed in the wall showed
two figures, pressed into one by their close embrace. As Andrews walked
past, his heavy army boots clattering loud on the wet pavement, they
lifted their heads slowly. The boy had violet eyes and pale beardless
cheeks; the girl was bareheaded and kept her brown eyes fixed on the
boy's face. Andrews's heart thumped within him. At last he had found
them. He made a step towards them, and then strode on losing himself
fast in the cool effacing fog. Again he had been mistaken. The fog
swirled about him, hiding wistful friendly faces, hands ready to meet
his hands, eyes ready to take fire with his glance, lips cold with the
mist, to be crushed under his lips. "From the girl at the singing under
her street-lamp..."

And he walked on alone through the drifting fog.


Andrews left the station reluctantly, shivering in the raw grey mist
under which the houses of the village street and the rows of motor
trucks and the few figures of French soldiers swathed in long formless
coats, showed as vague dark blurs in the confused dawnlight. His body
felt flushed and sticky from a night spent huddled in the warm fetid air
of an overcrowded compartment. He yawned and stretched himself and stood
irresolutely in the middle of the street with his pack biting into his
shoulders. Out of sight, behind the dark mass, in which a few ruddy
lights glowed, of the station buildings, the engine whistled and the
train clanked off into the distance. Andrews listened to its faint
reverberation through the mist with a sick feeling of despair. It was
the train that had brought him from Paris back to his division.

As he stood shivering in the grey mist he remembered the curious
despairing reluctance he used to suffer when he went back to boarding
school after a holiday. How he used to go from the station to the school
by the longest road possible, taking frantic account of every moment of
liberty left him. Today his feet had the same leaden reluctance as when
they used to all but refuse to take him up the long sandy hill to the

He wandered aimlessly for a while about the silent village hoping to
find a cafe where he could sit for a few minutes to take a last look
at himself before plunging again into the grovelling promiscuity of the
army. Not a light showed. All the shutters of the shabby little brick
and plaster houses were closed. With dull springless steps he walked
down the road they had pointed out to him from the R. T. O.

Overhead the sky was brightening giving the mist that clung to the earth
in every direction ruddy billowing outlines. The frozen road gave out a
faint hard resonance under his footsteps. Occasionally the silhouette
of a tree by the roadside loomed up in the mist ahead, its uppermost
branches clear and ruddy with sunlight.

Andrews was telling himself that the war was over, and that in a few
months he would be free in any case. What did a few months more or less
matter? But the same thoughts were swept recklessly away in the blind
panic that was like a stampede of wild steers within him. There was no
arguing. His spirit was contorted with revolt so that his flesh twitched
and dark splotches danced before his eyes. He wondered vaguely whether
he had gone mad. Enormous plans kept rising up out of the tumult of his
mind and dissolving suddenly like smoke in a high wind. He would run
away and if they caught him, kill himself. He would start a mutiny in
his company, he would lash all these men to frenzy by his words, so that
they too should refuse to form into Guns, so that they should laugh when
the officers got red in the face shouting orders at them, so that the
whole division should march off over the frosty hills, without arms,
without flags, calling all the men of all the armies to join them, to
march on singing, to laugh the nightmare out of their blood. Would not
some lightning flash of vision sear people's consciousness into life
again? What was the good of stopping the war if the armies continued?

But that was just rhetoric. His mind was flooding itself with rhetoric
that it might keep its sanity. His mind was squeezing out rhetoric like
a sponge that he might not see dry madness face to face.

And all the while his hard footsteps along the frozen road beat in
his ears bringing him nearer to the village where the division was
quartered. He was climbing a long hill. The mist thinned about him and
became brilliant with sunlight. Then he was walking in the full sun over
the crest of a hill with pale blue sky above his head. Behind him and
before him were mist-filled valleys and beyond other ranges of long
hills, with reddish-violet patches of woodland, glowing faintly in the
sunlight. In the valley at his feet he could see, in the shadow of the
hill he stood on, a church tower and a few roofs rising out of the mist,
as out of water.

Among the houses bugles were blowing mess-call.

The jauntiness of the brassy notes ringing up through the silence was
agony to him. How long the day would be. He looked at his watch. It was
seven thirty. How did they come to be having mess so late?

The mist seemed doubly cold and dark when he was buried in it again
after his moment of sunlight. The sweat was chilled on his face and
streaks of cold went through his clothes, soaked from the effort of
carrying the pack. In the village street Andrews met a man he did
not know and asked him where the office was. The man, who was chewing
something, pointed silently to a house with green shutters on the
opposite side of the street.

At a desk sat Chrisfield smoking a cigarette. When he jumped up Andrews
noticed that he had a corporal's two stripes on his arm.

"Hello, Andy."

They shook hands warmly.

"A' you all right now, ole boy?"

"Sure, I'm fine," said Andrews. A sudden constraint fell upon them.

"That's good," said Chrisfield.

"You're a corporal now. Congratulations."

"Um hum. Made me more'n a month ago."

They were silent. Chrisfield sat down in his chair again.

"What sort of a town is this?"

"It's a hell-hole, this dump is, a hell-hole."

"That's nice."

"Goin' to move soon, tell me.... Army o' Occupation. But Ah hadn't ought
to have told you that.... Don't tell any of the fellers."

"Where's the outfit quartered?"

"Ye won't know it; we've got fifteen new men. No account all of 'em.
Second draft men."

"Civilians in the town?"

"You bet.... Come with me, Andy, an Ah'll tell 'em to give you some grub
at the cookshack. No... wait a minute an' you'll miss the hike.... Hikes
every day since the goddam armistice. They sent out a general order
telling 'em to double up on the drill."

They heard a voice shouting orders outside and the narrow street filled
up suddenly with a sound of boots beating the ground in unison. Andrews
kept his back to the window. Something in his legs seemed to be tramping
in time with the other legs.

"There they go," said Chrisfield. "Loot's with 'em today.... Want some
grub? If it ain't been punk since the armistice."

The "Y" hut was empty and dark; through the grimy windowpanes could be
seen fields and a leaden sky full of heavy ocherous light, in which the
leafless trees and the fields full of stubble were different shades of
dead, greyish brown. Andrews sat at the piano without playing. He was
thinking how once he had thought to express all the cramped boredom of
this life; the thwarted limbs regimented together, lashed into straight
lines, the monotony of servitude. Unconsciously as he thought of it,
the fingers of one hand sought a chord, which jangled in the badly-tuned
piano. "God, how silly!" he muttered aloud, pulling his hands away.
Suddenly he began to play snatches of things he knew, distorting them,
willfully mutilating the rhythm, mixing into them snatches of ragtime.
The piano jangled under his hands, filling the empty hut with clamor.
He stopped suddenly, letting his fingers slide from bass to treble, and
began to play in earnest.

There was a cough behind him that had an artificial, discreet ring to
it. He went on playing without turning round. Then a voice said:

"Beautiful, beautiful."

Andrews turned to find himself staring into a face of vaguely triangular
shape with a wide forehead and prominent eyelids over protruding brown
eyes. The man wore a Y. M. C. A. uniform which was very tight for him,
so that there were creases running from each button across the front of
his tunic.

"Oh, do go on playing. It's years since I heard any Debussy."

"It wasn't Debussy."

"Oh, wasn't it? Anyway it was just lovely. Do go on. I'll just stand
here and listen."

Andrews went on playing for a moment, made a mistake, started over,
made the same mistake, banged on the keys with his fist and turned round

"I can't play," he said peevishly.

"Oh, you can, my boy, you can.... Where did you learn? I would give a
million dollars to play like that, if I had it."

Andrews glared at him silently.

"You are one of the men just back from hospital, I presume."

"Yes, worse luck."

"Oh, I don't blame you. These French towns are the dullest places;
though I just love France, don't you?" The "Y" man had a faintly whining

"Anywhere's dull in the army."

"Look, we must get to know each other real well. My name's Spencer
Sheffield...Spencer B. Sheffield.... And between you and me there's
not a soul in the division you can talk to. It's dreadful not to have
intellectual people about one. I suppose you're from New York."

Andrews nodded.

"Um hum, so am I. You're probably read some of my things in Vain
Endeavor.... What, you've never read Vain Endeavor? I guess you didn't
go round with the intellectual set.... Musical people often don't....
Of course I don't mean the Village. All anarchists and society women

"I've never gone round with any set, and I never..."

"Never mind, we'll fix that when we all get back to New York. And now
you just sit down at that piano and play me Debussy's 'Arabesque.'... I
know you love it just as much as I do. But first what's your name?"


"Folks come from Virginia?"

"Yes." Andrews got to his feet.

"Then you're related to the Penneltons."

"I may be related to the Kaiser for all I know."

"The Penneltons... that's it. You see my mother was a Miss Spencer from
Spencer Falls, Virginia, and her mother was a Miss Pennelton, so you and
I are cousins. Now isn't that a coincidence?"

"Distant cousins. But I must go back to the barracks."

"Come in and see me any time," Spencer B. Sheffield shouted after him.
"You know where; back of the shack; And knock twice so I'll know it's

Outside the house where he was quartered Andrews met the new top
sergeant, a lean man with spectacles and a little mustache of the color
and texture of a scrubbing brush.

"Here's a letter for you," the top sergeant said. "Better look at the
new K. P. list I've just posted."

The letter was from Henslowe. Andrews read it with a smile of pleasure
in the faint afternoon light, remembering Henslowe's constant drawling
talk about distant places he had never been to, and the man who had
eaten glass, and the day and a half in Paris.

"Andy," the letter began, "I've got the dope at last. Courses begin in
Paris February fifteenth. Apply at once to your C. O. to study somethin'
at University of Paris. Any amount of lies will go. Apply all
pull possible via sergeants, lieutenants and their mistresses and
laundresses. Yours, Henslowe."

His heart thumping, Andrews ran after the sergeant, passing, in his
excitement, a lieutenant without saluting him.

"Look here," snarled the lieutenant.

Andrews saluted, and stood stiffly at attention.

"Why didn't you salute me?"

"I was in a hurry, sir, and didn't see you. I was going on very urgent
company business, sir."

"Remember that just because the armistice is signed you needn't think
you're out of the army; at ease."

Andrews saluted. The lieutenant saluted, turned swiftly on his heel and
walked away.

Andrews caught up to the sergeant.

"Sergeant Coffin. Can I speak to you a minute?"

"I'm in a hell of a hurry."

"Have you heard anything about this army students' corps to send men to
universities here in France? Something the Y. M. C. A.'s getting up."

"Can't be for enlisted men. No I ain't heard a word about it. D'you want
to go to school again?"

"If I get a chance. To finish my course."

"College man, are ye? So am I. Well, I'll let you know if I get any
general order about it. Can't do anything without getting a general
order about it. Looks to me like it's all bushwa."

"I guess you're right."

The street was grey dark. Stung by a sense of impotence, surging with
despairing rebelliousness, Andrews hurried back towards the buildings
where the company was quartered. He would be late for mess. The grey
street was deserted. From a window here and there ruddy light streamed
out to make a glowing oblong on the wall of a house opposite.

"Goddam it, if ye don't believe me, you go ask the lootenant....
Look here, Toby, didn't our outfit see hotter work than any goddam

Toby had just stepped into the cafe, a tall man with a brown bulldog
face and a scar on his left cheek. He spoke rarely and solemnly with a
Maine coast Yankee twang.

"I reckon so," was all he said. He sat down on the bench beside the
other man who went on bitterly:

"I guess you would reckon so.... Hell, man, you ditch diggers ain't in

"Ditch diggers!" The engineer banged his fist down on the table. His
lean pickled face was a furious red. "I guess we don't dig half so many
ditches as the infantry does... an' when we've dug 'em we don't crawl
into 'em an' stay there like goddam cottontailed jackrabbits."

"You guys don't git near enough to the front...."

"Like goddam cottontailed jackrabbits," shouted the pickle-faced
engineer again, roaring with laughter. "Ain't that so?" He looked round
the room for approval. The benches at the two long tables were filled
with infantry men who looked at him angrily. Noticing suddenly that he
had no support, he moderated his voice.

"The infantry's damn necessary, I'll admit that; but where'd you fellers
be without us guys to string the barbed wire for you?"

"There warn't no barbed wire strung in the Oregon forest where we was,
boy. What d'ye want barbed wire when you're advancin' for?"

"Look here...I'll bet you a bottle of cognac my company had more losses
than yourn did."

"Tek him up, Joe," said Toby, suddenly showing an interest in the

"All right, it's a go."

"We had fifteen killed and twenty wounded," announced the engineer

Online LibraryJohn Dos PassosThree Soldiers → online text (page 17 of 31)