John Dos Passos.

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"How badly wounded?"

"What's that to you? Hand over the cognac?"

"Like hell. We had fifteen killed and twenty wounded too, didn't we,

"I reckon you're right," said Toby.

"Ain't I right?" asked the other man, addressing the company generally.

"Sure, goddam right," muttered voices.

"Well, I guess it's all off, then," said the engineer.

"No, it ain't," said Toby, "reckon up yer wounded. The feller who's got
the worst wounded gets the cognac. Ain't that fair?"


"We've had seven fellers sent home already," said the engineer.

"We've had eight. Ain't we?"

"Sure," growled everybody in the room.

"How bad was they?"

"Two of 'em was blind," said Toby.

"Hell," said the engineer, jumping to his feet as if taking a trick at
poker. "We had a guy who was sent home without arms nor legs, and three
fellers got t.b. from bein' gassed."

John Andrews had been sitting in a corner of the room. He got up.
Something had made him think of the man he had known in the hospital
who had said that was the life to make a feller feel fit. Getting up at
three o'clock in the morning, you jumped out of bed just like a cat....
He remembered how the olive-drab trousers had dangled, empty from the
man's chair.

"That's nothing; one of our sergeants had to have a new nose grafted

The village street was dark and deeply rutted with mud. Andrews wandered
up and down aimlessly. There was only one other cafe. That would be just
like this one. He couldn't go back to the desolate barn where he slept.
It would be too early to go to sleep. A cold wind blew down the street
and the sky was full of vague movement of dark clouds. The partly-frozen
mud clotted about his feet as he walked along; he could feel the water
penetrating his shoes. Opposite the Y. M. C. A. hut at the end of the
street he stopped. After a moment's indecision he gave a little laugh,
and walked round to the back where the door of the "Y" man's room was.

He knocked twice, half hoping there would be no reply.

Sheffield's whining high-pitched voice said: "Who is it?"


"Come right in.... You're just the man I wanted to see." Andrews stood
with his hand on the knob.

"Do sit down and make yourself right at home."

Spencer Sheffield was sitting at a little desk in a room with walls
of unplaned boards and one small window. Behind the desk were piles of
cracker boxes and cardboard cases of cigarettes and in the midst of
them a little opening, like that of a railway ticket office, in the wall
through which the "Y" man sold his commodities to the long lines of men
who would stand for hours waiting meekly in the room beyond.

Andrews was looking round for a chair.

"Oh, I just forgot. I'm sitting in the only chair," said Spencer
Sheffield, laughing, twisting his small mouth into a shape like a
camel's mouth and rolling about his large protruding eyes.

"Oh, that's all right. What I wanted to ask you was: do you know
anything about...?"

"Look, do come with me to my room," interrupted Sheffield. "I've got
such a nice sitting-room with an open fire, just next to Lieutenant
Bleezer.... An' there we'll talk... about everything. I'm just dying to
talk to somebody about the things of the spirit."

"Do you know anything about a scheme for sending enlisted men to French
universities? Men who have not finished their courses."

"Oh, wouldn't that be just fine. I tell you, boy, there's nothing like
the U. S. government to think of things like that."

"But have you heard anything about it?"

"No; but I surely shall.... D'you mind switching the light off?...
That's it. Now just follow me. Oh, I do need a rest. I've been working
dreadfully hard since that Knights of Columbus man came down here. Isn't
it hateful the way they try to run down the 'Y'?... Now we can have a
nice long talk. You must tell me all about yourself."

"But don't you really know anything about that university scheme? They
say it begins February fifteenth," Andrews said in a low voice.

"I'll ask Lieutenant Bleezer if he knows anything about it," said
Sheffield soothingly, throwing an arm around Andrews's shoulder and
pushing him in the door ahead of him.

They went through a dark hall to a little room where a fire burned
brilliantly in the hearth, lighting up with tongues of red and yellow a
square black walnut table and two heavy armchairs with leather backs and
bottoms that shone like lacquer.

"This is wonderful," said Andrews involuntarily.

"Romantic I call it. Makes you think of Dickens, doesn't it, and
Locksley Hall."

"Yes," said Andrews vaguely.

"Have you been in France long?" asked Andrews settling himself in one
of the chairs and looking into the dancing flames of the log fire. "Will
you smoke?" He handed Sheffield a crumpled cigarette.

"No, thanks, I only smoke special kinds. I have a weak heart. That's why
I was rejected from the army.... Oh, but I think it was superb of you to
join as a private; It was my dream to do that, to be one of the nameless
marching throng."

"I think it was damn foolish, not to say criminal," said Andrews
sullenly, still staring into the fire.

"You can't mean that. Or do you mean that you think you had abilities
which would have been worth more to your country in another position?...
I have many friends who felt that."

"No.... I don't think it's right of a man to go back on himself.... I
don't think butchering people ever does any good ...I have acted as if
I did think it did good... out of carelessness or cowardice, one or the
other; that I think bad."

"You mustn't talk that way" said Sheffield hurriedly. "So you are a
musician, are you?" He asked the question with a jaunty confidential

"I used to play the piano a little, if that's what you mean," said

"Music has never been the art I had most interest in. But many things
have moved me intensely.... Debussy and those beautiful little things
of Nevin's. You must know them.... Poetry has been more my field. When I
was young, younger than you are, quite a lad...Oh, if we could only stay
young; I am thirty-two."

"I don't see that youth by itself is worth much. It's the most superb
medium there is, though, for other things," said Andrews. "Well, I must
go," he said. "If you do hear anything about that university scheme, you
will let me know, won't you?"

"Indeed I shall, dear boy, indeed I shall."

They shook hands in jerky dramatic fashion and Andrews stumbled down the
dark hall to the door. When he stood out in the raw night air again
he drew a deep breath. By the light that streamed out from a window
he looked at his watch. There was time to go to the regimental
sergeant-major's office before tattoo.

At the opposite end of the village street from the Y. M. C. A. hut was
a cube-shaped house set a little apart from the rest in the middle of a
broad lawn which the constant crossing and recrossing of a staff of cars
and trains of motor trucks had turned into a muddy morass in which the
wheel tracks crisscrossed in every direction. A narrow board walk led
from the main road to the door. In the middle of this walk Andrews met a
captain and automatically got off into the mud and saluted.

The regimental office was a large room that had once been decorated by
wan and ill-drawn mural paintings in the manner of Puvis de Chavannes,
but the walls had been so chipped and soiled by five years of military
occupation that they were barely recognisable. Only a few bits of bare
flesh and floating drapery showed here and there above the maps and
notices that were tacked on the walls. At the end of the room a group of
nymphs in Nile green and pastel blue could be seen emerging from under a
French War Loan poster. The ceiling was adorned with an oval of flowers
and little plaster cupids in low relief which had also suffered and in
places showed the laths. The office was nearly empty. The littered desks
and silent typewriters gave a strange air of desolation to the gutted
drawing-room. Andrews walked boldly to the furthest desk, where a
little red card leaning against the typewriter said "Regimental

Behind the desk, crouched over a heap of typewritten reports, sat a
little man with scanty sandy hair, who screwed up his eyes and smiled
when Andrews approached the desk.

"Well, did you fix it up for me?" he asked.

"Fix what?" said Andrews.

"Oh, I thought you were someone else." The smile left the regimental
sergeant-major's thin lips. "What do you want?"

"Why, Regimental Sergeant-Major, can you tell me anything about a scheme
to send enlisted men to colleges over here? Can you tell me who to apply

"According to what general orders? And who told you to come and see me
about it, anyway?"

"Have you heard anything about it?"

"No, nothing definite. I'm busy now anyway. Ask one of your own non-coms
to find out about it." He crouched once more over the papers.

Andrews was walking towards the door, flushing with annoyance, when he
saw that the man at the desk by the window was jerking his head in a
peculiar manner, just in the direction of the regimental sergeant-major
and then towards the door. Andrews smiled at him and nodded. Outside
the door, where an orderly sat on a short bench reading a torn Saturday
Evening Post, Andrews waited. The hall was part of what must have been
a ballroom, for it had a much-scarred hardwood floor and big spaces of
bare plaster framed by gilt-and lavender-colored mouldings, which had
probably held tapestries. The partition of unplaned boards that formed
other offices cut off the major part of a highly decorated ceiling where
cupids with crimson-daubed bottoms swam in all attitudes in a sea of
pink-and blue-and lavender-colored clouds, wreathing themselves coyly in
heavy garlands of waxy hothouse flowers, while cornucopias spilling
out squashy fruits gave Andrews a feeling of distinct insecurity as he
looked up from below.

"Say are you a Kappa Mu?"

Andrews looked down suddenly and saw in front of him the man who had
signalled to him in the regimental sergeant-major's office.

"Are you a Kappa Mu?" he asked again.

"No, not that I know of," stammered Andrews puzzled.

"What school did you go to?"


"Harvard.... Guess we haven't got a chapter there.... I'm from North
Western. Anyway you want to go to school in France here if you can. So
do I."

"Don't you want to come and have a drink?"

The man frowned, pulled his overseas cap down over his forehead, where
the hair grew very low, and looked about him mysteriously. "Yes," he

They splashed together down the muddy village street. "We've got
thirteen minutes before tattoo.... My name's Walters, what's yours?" He
spoke in a low voice in short staccato phrases.


"Andrews, you've got to keep this dark. If everybody finds out about it
we're through. It's a shame you're not a Kappa Mu, but college men have
got to stick together, that's the way I look at it."

"Oh, I'll keep it dark enough," said Andrews.

"It's too good to be true. The general order isn't out yet, but I've
seen a preliminary circular. What school d'you want to go to?"

"Sorbonne, Paris."

"That's the stuff. D'you know the back room at Baboon's?"

Walters turned suddenly to the left up an alley, and broke through a
hole in a hawthorn hedge.

"A guy's got to keep his eyes and ears open if he wants to get anywhere
in this army," he said.

As they ducked in the back door of a cottage, Andrews caught a glimpse
of the billowy line of a tile roof against the lighter darkness of the
sky. They sat down on a bench built into a chimney where a few sticks
made a splutter of flames.

"Monsieur desire?" A red-faced girl with a baby in her arms came up to

"That's Babette; Baboon I call her," said Walters with a laugh.

"Chocolat," said Walters.

"That'll suit me all right. It's my treat, remember."

"I'm not forgetting it. Now let's get to business. What you do is this.
You write an application. I'll make that out for you on the typewriter
tomorrow and you meet me here at eight tomorrow night and I'll give it
to you.... You sign it at once and hand it in to your sergeant. See?"

"This'll just be a preliminary application; when the order's out you'll
have to make another."

The woman, this time without the baby, appeared out of the darkness
of the room with a candle and two cracked bowls from which steam rose,
faint primrose-color in the candle light. Walters drank his bowl down at
a gulp, grunted and went on talking.

"Give me a cigarette, will you?... You'll have to make it out darn soon
too, because once the order's out every son of a gun in the division'll
be making out to be a college man. How did you get your tip?"

"From a fellow in Paris."

"You've been to Paris, have you?" said Walters admiringly. "Is it the
way they say it is? Gee, these French are immoral. Look at this woman
here. She'll sleep with a feller soon as not. Got a baby too!"

"But who do the applications go in to?"

"To the colonel, or whoever he appoints to handle it. You a Catholic?"


"Neither am I. That's the hell of it. The regimental sergeant-major is."


"I guess you haven't noticed the way things run up at divisional
headquarters. It's a regular cathedral. Isn't a mason in it.... But I
must beat it.... Better pretend you don't know me if you meet me on the
street; see?"

"All right."

Walters hurried out of the door. Andrews sat alone looking at the
flutter of little flames about the pile of sticks on the hearth, while
he sipped chocolate from the warm bowl held between the palms of both

He remembered a speech out of some very bad romantic play he had heard
when he was very small.

"About your head I fling... the curse of Rome."

He started to laugh, sliding back and forth on the smooth bench which
had been polished by the breeches of generations warming their feet at
the fire. The red-faced woman stood with her hands on her hips looking
at him in astonishment, while he laughed and laughed.

"Mais quelle gaite, quelle gaite," she kept saying.

The straw under him rustled faintly with every sleepy movement Andrews
made in his blankets. In a minute the bugle was going to blow and he was
going to jump out of his blankets, throw on his clothes and fall into
line for roll call in the black mud of the village street. It couldn't
be that only a month had gone by since he had got back from hospital.
No, he had spent a lifetime in this village being dragged out of his
warm blankets every morning by the bugle, shivering as he stood in line
for roll call, shuffling in a line that moved slowly past the cookshack,
shuffling along in another line to throw what was left of his food into
garbage cans, to wash his mess kit in the greasy water a hundred other
men had washed their mess kits in; lining up to drill, to march on along
muddy roads, splattered by the endless trains of motor trucks; lining up
twice more for mess, and at last being forced by another bugle into his
blankets again to sleep heavily while a smell hung in his nostrils of
sweating woolen clothing and breathed-out air and dusty blankets. In
a minute the bugle was going to blow, to snatch him out of even these
miserable thoughts, and throw him into an automaton under other men's
orders. Childish spiteful desires surged into his mind. If the bugler
would only die. He could picture him, a little man with a broad face and
putty-colored cheeks, a small rusty mustache and bow-legs lying like a
calf on a marble slab in a butcher's shop on top of his blankets. What
nonsense! There were other buglers. He wondered how many buglers there
were in the army. He could picture them all, in dirty little villages,
in stone barracks, in towns, in great camps that served the country
for miles with rows of black warehouses and narrow barrack buildings
standing with their feet a little apart; giving their little brass
bugles a preliminary tap before putting out their cheeks and blowing in
them and stealing a million and a half (or was it two million or three
million) lives, and throwing the warm sentient bodies into coarse
automatons who must be kept busy, lest they grow restive, till killing
time began again.

The bugle blew with the last jaunty notes, a stir went through the barn.

Corporal Chrisfield stood on the ladder that led up from the yard, his
head on a level with the floor shouting:

"Shake it up, fellers! If a guy's late to roll call, it's K. P. for a

As Andrews, while buttoning his tunic, passed him on the ladder, he

"Tell me we're going to see service again, Andy... Army o' Occupation."

While he stood stiffly at attention waiting to answer when the sergeant
called his name, Andrews's mind was whirling in crazy circles of
anxiety. What if they should leave before the General Order came on
the University plan? The application would certainly be lost in the
confusion of moving the Division, and he would be condemned to keep up
this life for more dreary weeks and months. Would any years of work and
happiness in some future existence make up for the humiliating agony of
this servitude?


He ran up the ladder to fetch his mess kit and in a few minutes was in
line again in the rutted village street where the grey houses were just
forming outlines as light crept slowly into the leaden sky, while a
faint odor of bacon and coffee came to him, making him eager for food,
eager to drown his thoughts in the heaviness of swiftly-eaten greasy
food and in the warmth of watery coffee gulped down out of a tin-curved
cup. He was telling himself desperately that he must do something - that
he must make an effort to save himself, that he must fight against the
deadening routine that numbed him.

Later, while he was sweeping the rough board floor of the company's
quarters, the theme came to him which had come to him long ago, in a
former incarnation it seemed, when he was smearing windows with soap
from a gritty sponge along the endless side of the barracks in the
training camp. Time and time again in the past year he had thought of
it, and dreamed of weaving it into a fabric of sound which would express
the trudging monotony of days bowed under the yoke. "Under the
Yoke"; that would be a title for it. He imagined the sharp tap of
the conductor's baton, the silence of a crowded hall, the first notes
rasping bitterly upon the tense ears of men and women. But as he tried
to concentrate his mind on the music, other things intruded upon it,
blurred it. He kept feeling the rhythm of the Queen of Sheba slipping
from the shoulders of her gaudily caparisoned elephant, advancing
towards him through the torchlight, putting her hand, fantastic with
rings and long gilded fingernails, upon his shoulders so that ripples
of delight, at all the voluptuous images of his desire, went through his
whole body, making it quiver like a flame with yearning for unimaginable
things. It all muddled into fantastic gibberish - into sounds of horns
and trombones and double basses blown off key while a piccolo shrilled
the first bars of "The Star Spangled Banner."

He had stopped sweeping and looked about him dazedly. He was alone.
Outside, he heard a sharp voice call "Atten-shun!" He ran down the
ladder and fell in at the end of the line under the angry glare of the
lieutenant's small eyes, which were placed very close together on either
side of a lean nose, black and hard, like the eyes of a crab.

The company marched off through the mud to the drill field.

After retreat Andrews knocked at the door at the back of the Y. M. C.
A., but as there was no reply, he strode off with a long, determined
stride to Sheffield's room.

In the moment that elapsed between his knock and an answer, he could
feel his heart thumping. A little sweat broke out on his temples.

"Why, what's the matter, boy? You look all wrought up," said Sheffield,
holding the door half open, and blocking, with his lean form, entrance
to the room.

"May I come in? I want to talk to you," said Andrews.

"Oh, I suppose it'll be all right.... You see I have an officer with
me..." then there was a flutter in Sheffield's voice. "Oh, do come in";
he went on, with sudden enthusiasm. "Lieutenant Bleezer is fond of music
too.... Lieutenant, this is the boy I was telling you about. We must
get him to play for us. If he had the opportunities, I am sure he'd be a
famous musician."

Lieutenant Bleezer was a dark youth with a hooked nose and pincenez. His
tunic was unbuttoned and he held a cigar in his hand. He smiled in an
evident attempt to put this enlisted man at his ease.

"Yes, I am very fond of music, modern music," he said, leaning against
the mantelpiece. "Are you a musician by profession?"

"Not exactly... nearly." Andrews thrust his hands into the bottoms of
his trouser pockets and looked from one to the other with a certain

"I suppose you've played in some orchestra? How is it you are not in the
regimental band?"

"No, except the Pierian."

"The Pierian? Were you at Harvard?"

Andrews nodded.

"So was I."

"Isn't that a coincidence?" said Sheffield. "I'm so glad I just insisted
on your coming in."

"What year were you?" asked Lieutenant Bleezer, with a faint change of
tone, drawing a finger along his scant black moustache.


"I haven't graduated yet," said the lieutenant with a laugh.

"What I wanted to ask you, Mr. Sheffield...."

"Oh, my boy; my boy, you know you've known me long enough to call me
Spence," broke in Sheffield.

"I want to know," went on Andrews speaking slowly, "can you help me to
get put on the list to be sent to the University of Paris?... I know
that a list has been made out, although the General Order has not come
yet. I am disliked by most of the noncoms and I don't see how I can get
on without somebody's help...I simply can't go this life any longer."
Andrews closed his lips firmly and looked at the ground, his face

"Well, a man of your attainments certainly ought to go," said Lieutenant
Bleezer, with a faint tremor of hesitation in his voice. "I'm going to
Oxford myself."

"Trust me, my boy," said Sheffield. "I'll fix it up for you, I promise.
Let's shake hands on it." He seized Andrews's hand and pressed it warmly
in a moist palm. "If it's within human power, within human power," he

"Well, I must go," said Lieutenant Bleezer, suddenly striding to the
door. "I promised the Marquise I'd drop in. Good-bye.... Take a cigar,
won't you?" He held out three cigars in the direction of Andrews.

"No, thank you."

"Oh, don't you think the old aristocracy of France is just too
wonderful? Lieutenant Bleezer goes almost every evening to call on
the Marquise de Rompemouville. He says she is just too spirituelle for
words.... He often meets the Commanding Officer there."

Andrews had dropped into a chair and sat with his face buried in his
hands, looking through his fingers at the fire, where a few white
fingers of flame were clutching intermittently at a grey beech log. His
mind was searching desperately for expedients.

He got to his feet and shouted shrilly:

"I can't go this life any more, do you hear that? No possible future is
worth all this. If I can get to Paris, all right. If not, I'll desert
and damn the consequences."

"But I've already promised I'll do all I can...."

"Well, do it now," interrupted Andrews brutally.

"All right, I'll go and see the colonel and tell him what a great
musician you are."

"Let's go together, now."

"But that'll look queer, dear boy."

"I don't give a damn, come along.... You can talk to him. You seem to be
thick with all the officers."

"You must wait till I tidy up," said Sheffield.

"All right."

Andrews strode up and down in the mud in front of the house, snapping
his fingers with impatience, until Sheffield came out, then they walked
off in silence.

"Now wait outside a minute," whispered Sheffield when they came to
the white house with bare grapevines over the front, where the colonel

After a wait, Andrews found himself at the door of a brilliantly-lighted
drawing room. There was a dense smell of cigar smoke. The colonel, an
elderly man with a benevolent beard, stood before him with a coffee cup
in his hand. Andrews saluted punctiliously.

"They tell me you are quite a pianist.... Sorry I didn't know it
before," said the colonel in a kindly tone. "You want to go to Paris to
study under this new scheme?"

"Yes, sir."

"What a shame I didn't know before. The list of the men going is all

Online LibraryJohn Dos PassosThree Soldiers → online text (page 18 of 31)