John Dos Passos.

Three Soldiers online

. (page 8 of 31)
Online LibraryJohn Dos PassosThree Soldiers → online text (page 8 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

eye that lit up faintly the tailboards of the truck ahead. The barracks
were dark and nearly empty. He sat down at the sergeant's desk and
began moodily turning over the pages of the little blue book of Army

The moonlight glittered in the fountain at the end of the main square
of the town. It was a warm dark night of faint clouds through which the
moon shone palely as through a thin silk canopy. Fuselli stood by the
fountain smoking a cigarette, looking at the yellow windows of the
Cheval Blanc at the other end of the square, from which came a sound of
voices and of billiard balls clinking. He stood quiet letting the acrid
cigarette smoke drift out through his nose, his ears full of the silvery
tinkle of the water in the fountain beside him. There were little drifts
of warm and chilly air in the breeze that blew fitfully from the west.
Fuselli was waiting. He took out his watch now and then and strained his
eyes to see the time, but there was not light enough. At last the deep
broken note of the bell in the church spire struck once. It must be half
past ten.

He started walking slowly towards the street where Yvonne's grocery
shop was. The faint glow of the moon lit up the grey houses with the
shuttered windows and tumultuous red roofs full of little dormers and
skylights. Fuselli felt deliciously at ease with the world. He could
almost feel Yvonne's body in his arms and he smiled as he remembered
the little faces she used to make at him. He slunk past the shuttered
windows of the shop and dove into the darkness under the arch that led
to the court. He walked cautiously, on tiptoe, keeping close to the
moss-covered wall, for he heard voices in the court. He peeped round
the edge of the building and saw that there were several people in the
kitchen door talking. He drew his head back into the shadow. But he
had caught a glimpse of the dark round form of the hogshead beside the
kitchen door. If he only could get behind that as he usually did, he
would be hidden until the people went away.

Keeping well in the shadow round the edge of the court, he slipped to
the other side, and was just about to pop himself in behind the hogshead
when he noticed that someone was there before him.

He caught his breath and stood still, his heart thumping. The figure
turned and in the dark he recognised the top sergeant's round face.

"Keep quiet, can't you?" whispered the top sergeant peevishly.

Fuselli stood still with his fists clenched. The blood flamed through
his head, making his scalp tingle.

Still the top sergeant was the top sergeant, came the thought. It
would never do to get in wrong with him. Fuselli's legs moved him
automatically back into a corner of the court, where he leaned against
the damp wall; glaring with smarting eyes at the two women who stood
talking outside the kitchen door, and at the dark shadow behind the
hogshead. At last, after several smacking kisses, the women went away
and the kitchen door closed. The bell in the church spire struck eleven
slowly and mournfully. When it had ceased striking, Fuselli heard a
discreet tapping and saw the shadow of the top sergeant against the
door. As he slipped in, Fuselli heard the top sergeant's good-natured
voice in a large stage whisper, followed by a choked laugh from Yvonne.
The door closed and the light was extinguished, leaving the court in
darkness except for a faint marbled glow in the sky.

Fuselli strode out, making as much noise as he could with his heels on
the cobble stones. The streets of the town were silent under the pale
moon. In the square the fountain sounded loud and metallic. He gave up
his pass to the guard and strode glumly towards the barracks. At the
door he met a man with a pack on his back.

"Hullo, Fuselli," said a voice he knew. "Is my old bunk still there?"

"Damned if I know," said Fuselli; "I thought they'd shipped you home."

The corporal who had been on the Red Sox outfield broke into a fit of

"Hell, no," he said. "They kep' me at that goddam hospital till they saw
I wasn't goin' to die right away, an' then they told me to come back to
my outfit. So here I am!"

"Did they bust you?" said Fuselli with sudden eagerness.

"Hell, no. Why should they? They ain't gone and got a new corporal, have

"No, not exactly," said Fuselli.


Meadville stood near the camp gate, watching the motor trucks go by
on the main road. Grey, lumbering, and mud-covered, they throbbed by
sloughing in and out of the mud holes in the worn road in an endless
train stretching as far as he could see into the town and as far as he
could see up the road.

He stood with his legs far apart and spat into the center of the road;
then he turned to the corporal who had been in the Red Sox outfield and

"I'll be goddamed if there ain't somethin' doin'!"

"A hell of a lot doin'," said the corporal, shaking his head.

"Seen that guy Daniels who's been to the front?"


"Well, he says hell's broke loose. Hell's broke loose!"

"What's happened?... Be gorry, we may see some active service," said
Meadville, grinning. "By God, I'd give the best colt on my ranch to see
some action."

"Got a ranch?" asked the corporal.

The motor trucks kept on grinding past monotonously; their drivers were
so splashed with mud it was hard to see what uniform they wore.

"What d'ye think?" asked Meadville. "Think I keep store?"

Fuselli walked past them towards the town.

"Say, Fuselli," shouted Meadville. "Corporal says hell's broke loose out
there. We may smell gunpowder yet."

Fuselli stopped and joined them.

"I guess poor old Bill Grey's smelt plenty of gunpowder by this time,"
he said.

"I wish I had gone with him," said Meadville. "I'll try that little
trick myself now the good weather's come on if we don't get a move on

"Too damn risky!"

"Listen to the kid. It'll be too damn risky in the trenches.... Or do
you think you're goin' to get a cushy job in camp here?"

"Hell, no! I want to go to the front. I don't want to stay in this


"But ain't no good throwin' yerself in where it don't do no good.... A
guy wants to get on in this army if he can."

"What's the good o' gettin' on?" said the corporal. "Won't get home a
bit sooner."

"Hell! but you're a non-com."

Another train of motor trucks went by, drowning their Talk.

Fuselli was packing medical supplies in a box in a great brownish
warehouse full of packing cases where a little sun filtered in through
the dusty air at the corrugated sliding tin doors. As he worked, he
listened to Daniels talking to Meadville who worked beside him.

"An' the gas is the goddamndest stuff I ever heard of," he was saying.
"I've seen fellers with their arms swelled up to twice the size like
blisters from it. Mustard gas, they call it."

"What did you get to go to the hospital?" said Meadville.

"Only pneumonia," said Daniels, "but I had a buddy who was split right
in half by a piece of a shell. He was standin' as near me as you are an'
was whistlin' 'Tipperary' under his breath when all at once there was a
big spurt o' blood an' there he was with his chest split in half an' his
head hangin' a thread like."

Meadville moved his quid of tobacco from one cheek to the other and spat
on to the sawdust of the floor. The men within earshot stopped working
and looked admiringly at Daniels.

"Well; what d'ye reckon's goin' on at the front now?" said Meadville.

"Damned of I know. The goddam hospital at Orleans was so full up there
was guys in stretchers waiting all day on the pavement outside. I know
that.... Fellers there said hell'd broke loose for fair. Looks to me
like the Fritzies was advancin'."

Meadville looked at him incredulously.

"Those skunks?" said Fuselli. "Why they can't advance. They're starvin'
to death."

"The hell they are," said Daniels. "I guess you believe everything you
see in the papers."

Eyes looked at Daniels indignantly. They all went on working in silence.

Suddenly the lieutenant, looking strangely flustered, strode into the
warehouse, leaving the tin door open behind him.

"Can anyone tell me where Sergeant Osler is?"

"He was here a few minutes ago," spoke up Fuselli.

"Well, where is he now?" snapped the lieutenant angrily.

"I don't know, sir," mumbled Fuselli, flushing.

"Go and see if you can find him."

Fuselli went off to the other end of the warehouse. Outside the door he
stopped and bit off a cigarette in a leisurely fashion. His blood boiled
sullenly. How the hell should he know where the top sergeant was? They
didn't expect him to be a mind-reader, did they? And all the flood
of bitterness that had been collecting in his spirit seethed to the
surface. They had not treated him right, He felt full of hopeless
anger against this vast treadmill to which he was bound. The endless
succession of the days, all alike, all subject to orders, to the
interminable monotony of drills and line-ups, passed before his mind. He
felt he couldn't go on, yet he knew that he must and would go on, that
there was no stopping, that his feet would go on beating in time to the
steps of the treadmill.

He caught sight of the sergeant coming towards the warehouse, across the
new green grass, scarred by the marks of truck wheels.

"Sarge," he called. Then he went up to him mysteriously. "The loot wants
to see you at once in Warehouse B."

He slouched back to his work, arriving just in time to hear the
lieutenant say in a severe voice to the sergeant:

"Sergeant, do you know how to draw up court-martial papers?"

"Yes, sir," said the sergeant, a look of surprise on his face. He
followed the precise steps of the lieutenant out of the door.

Fuselli had a moment of panic terror, during which he went on working
methodically, although his hands trembled. He was searching his memory
for some infringement of a regulation that might be charged against him.
The terror passed as fast as it had come. Of course he had no reason to
fear. He laughed softly to himself. What a fool he'd been to get scared
like that, and a summary court-martial couldn't do much to you anyway.
He went on working as fast and as carefully as he could, through the
long monotonous afternoon.

That night nearly the whole company gathered in a group at the end
of the barracks. Both sergeants were away. The corporal said he knew
nothing, and got sulkily into bed, where he lay, rolled in his blankets,
shaken by fit after fit of coughing.

At last someone said:

"I bet that kike Eisenstein's turned out to be a spy."

"I bet he has too."

"He's foreign born, ain't he? Born in Poland or some goddam place."

"He always did talk queer."

"I always thought," said Fuselli, "he'd get into trouble talking the way
he did."

"How'd he talk?" asked Daniels.

"Oh, he said that war was wrong and all that goddamed pro-German stuff."

"D'ye know what they did out at the front?" said Daniels. "In the second
division they made two fellers dig their own graves and then shot 'em
for sayin' the war was wrong."

"Hell, they did?"

"You're goddam right, they did. I tell you, fellers, it don't do to
monkey with the buzz-saw in this army."

"For God's sake shut up. Taps has blown. Meadville, turn the lights
out!" said the corporal angrily. The barracks was dark, full of a sound
of men undressing in their bunks, and of whispered talk.

The company was lined up for morning mess. The sun that had just risen
was shining in rosily through the soft clouds of the sky. The sparrows
kept up a great clattering in the avenue of plane trees. Their riotous
chirping could be heard above the sound of motors starting that came
from a shed opposite the mess shack.

The sergeant appeared suddenly; walking past with his shoulders stiff,
so that everyone knew at once that something important was going on.

"Attention, men, a minute," he said.

Mess kits clattered as the men turned round.

"After mess I want you to go immediately to barracks and roll your
packs. After that every man must stand by his pack until orders come."
The company cheered and mess kits clattered together like cymbals.

"As you were," shouted the top sergeant jovially.

Gluey oatmeal and greasy bacon were hurriedly bolted down, and every
man in the company, his heart pounding, ran to the barracks to do up his
pack, feeling proud under the envious eyes of the company at the other
end of the shack that had received no orders.

When the packs were done up, they sat on the empty hunks and drummed
their feet against the wooden partitions waiting.

"I don't suppose we'll leave here till hell freezes over," said
Meadville, who was doing up the last strap on his pack.

"It's always like this.... You break your neck to obey orders an'..."

"Outside!" shouted the sergeant, poking his head in the door.

"Fall in! Atten-shun!"

The lieutenant in his trench coat and in a new pair of roll puttees
stood facing the company, looking solemn.

"Men," he said, biting off his words as a man bites through a piece
of hard stick candy; "one of your number is up for courtmartial for
possibly disloyal statements found in a letter addressed to friends at
home. I have been extremely grieved to find anything of this sort in
any company of mine; I don't believe there is another man in the
company... low enough to hold... entertain such ideas...."

Every man in the company stuck out his chest, vowing inwardly to
entertain no ideas at all rather than run the risk of calling forth such
disapproval from the lieutenant. The lieutenant paused:

"All I can say is if there is any such man in the company, he had better
keep his mouth shut and be pretty damn careful what he writes home....

He shouted the order grimly, as if it were the order for the execution
of the offender.

"That goddam skunk Eisenstein," said someone.

The lieutenant heard it as he walked away. "Oh, sergeant," he said
familiarly; "I think the others have got the right stuff in them."

The company went into the barracks and waited.

The sergeant-major's office was full of a clicking of typewriters, and
was overheated by a black stove that stood in the middle of the floor,
letting out occasional little puffs of smoke from a crack in the stove
pipe. The sergeant-major was a small man with a fresh boyish face and a
drawling voice who lolled behind a large typewriter reading a magazine
that lay on his lap.

Fuselli slipped in behind the typewriter and stood with his cap in his
hand beside the sergeant-major's chair.

"Well what do you want?" asked the sergeant-major gruffly.

"A feller told me, Sergeant-Major, that you was look-in' for a man with
optical experience;" Fuselli's voice was velvety.


"I worked three years in an optical-goods store at home in Frisco."

"What's your name, rank, company?"

"Daniel Fuselli, Private 1st-class, Company C, medical supply

"All right, I'll attend to it."

"But, sergeant."

"All right; out with what you've got to say, quick." The sergeant-major
fingered the leaves of his magazine impatiently.

"My company's all packed up to go. The transfer'll have to be today,

"Why the hell didn't you come in earlier?... Stevens, make out a
transfer to headquarters company and get the major to sign it when he
goes through.... That's the way it always is," he cried, leaning back
tragically in his swivel chair. "Everybody always puts everything off on
me at the last minute."

"Thank you, sir," said Fuselli, smiling. The sergeant-major ran his hand
through his hair and took up his magazine again peevishly.

Fuselli hurried back to barracks where he found the company still
waiting. Several men were crouched in a circle playing craps. The rest
lounged in their bare bunks or fiddled with their packs. Outside it had
begun to rain softly, and a smell of wet sprouting earth came in through
the open door. Fuselli sat on the floor beside his bunk throwing his
knife down so that it stuck in the boards between his knees. He was
whistling softly to himself. The day dragged on. Several times he heard
the town clock strike in the distance.

At last the top sergeant came in, shaking the water off his slicker, a
serious, important expression on his face.

"Inspection of medical belts," he shouted. "Everybody open up their belt
and lay it on the foot of their bunk and stand at attention on the left

The lieutenant and a major appeared suddenly at one end of the barracks
and came through slowly, pulling the little packets out of the belts.
The men looked at them out of the corners of their eyes. As they
examined the belts, they chatted easily, as if they had been alone.

"Yes," said the major. "We're in for it this time.... That damned

"Well, we'll be able to show 'em what we're good for," said the
lieutenant, laughing. "We haven't had a chance yet."

"Hum! Better mark that belt, lieutenant, and have it changed. Been to
the front yet?"

"No, sir."

"Hum, well.... You'll look at things differently when you have," said
the major.

The lieutenant frowned.

"Well, on the whole, lieutenant, your outfit is in very good shape....
At ease, men!" The lieutenant and the major stood at the door a moment
raising the collars of their coats; then they dove out into the rain.

A few minutes later the sergeant came in.

"All right, get your slickers on and line up."

They stood lined up in the rain for a long while. It was a leaden
afternoon. The even clouds had a faint coppery tinge. The rain beat in
their faces, making them tingle. Fuselli was looking anxiously at the
sergeant. At last the lieutenant appeared.

"Attention!" cried the sergeant.

The roll was called and a new man fell in at the end of the line, a tall
man with large protruding eyes like a calf's.

"Private 1st-class Daniel Fuselli, fall out and report to headquarters

Fuselli saw a look of surprise come over men's faces. He smiled wanly at

"Sergeant, take the men down to the station."

"Squads, right," cried the sergeant. "March!"

The company tramped off into the streaming rain.

Fuselli went back to the barracks, took off his pack and slicker and
wiped the water off his face.

The rails gleamed gold in the early morning sunshine above the deep
purple cinders of the track. Fuselli's eyes followed the track until
it curved into a cutting where the wet clay was a bright orange in the
clear light. The station platform, where puddles from the night's rain
glittered as the wind ruffled them, was empty. Fuselli started walking
up and down with his hands in his pockets. He had been sent down to
unload some supplies that were coming on that morning's train. He felt
free and successful since he joined the headquarters company! At last,
he told himself, he had a job where he could show what he was good for.
He walked up and down whistling shrilly.

A train pulled slowly into the station. The engine stopped to take water
and the couplings clanked all down the line of cars. The platform was
suddenly full of men in khaki, stamping their feet, running up and down

"Where you guys goin'?" asked Fuselli.

"We're bound for Palm Beach. Don't we look it?" someone snarled in

But Fuselli had seen a familiar face. He was shaking hands with two
browned men whose faces were grimy with days of travelling in freight

"Hullo, Chrisfield. Hullo, Andrews!" he cried. "When did you fellows get
over here?"

"Oh, 'bout four months ago," said Chrisfield, whose black eyes looked
at Fuselli searchingly. "Oh! Ah 'member you. You're Fuselli. We was at
trainin' camp together. 'Member him, Andy?"

"Sure," said Andrews. "How are you makin' out?"

"Fine," said Fuselli. "I'm in the optical department here."

"Where the hell's that?"

"Right here." Fuselli pointed vaguely behind the station.

"We've been training about four months near Bordeaux," said Andrews;
"and now we're going to see what it's like."

The whistle blew and the engine started puffing hard. Clouds of white
steam filled the station platform, where the soldiers scampered for
their cars.

"Good luck!" said Fuselli; but Andrews and Chrisfield had already gone.
He saw them again as the train pulled out, two brown and dirt-grimed
faces among many other brown and dirt-grimed faces. The steam floated
up tinged with yellow in the bright early morning air as the last car of
the train disappeared round the curve into the cutting.

The dust rose thickly about the worn broom. As it was a dark morning,
very little light filtered into the room full of great white packing
cases, where Fuselli was sweeping. He stopped now and then and leaned on
his broom. Far away he heard a sound of trains shunting and shouts and
the sound of feet tramping in unison from the drill ground. The building
where he was was silent. He went on sweeping, thinking of his company
tramping off through the streaming rain, and of those fellows he had
known in training Camp in America, Andrews and Chrisfield, jolting in
box cars towards the front, where Daniel's buddy had had his chest split
in half by a piece of shell. And he'd written home he'd been made a
corporal. What was he going to do when letters came for him, addressed
Corporal Dan Fuselli? Putting the broom away, he dusted the yellow chair
and the table covered with order slips that stood in the middle of the
piles of packing boxes. The door slammed somewhere below and there was a
step on the stairs that led to the upper part of the warehouse. A little
man with a monkey-like greyish-brown face and spectacles appeared and
slipped out of his overcoat, like a very small bean popping out of a
very large pod.

The sergeant's stripes looked unusually wide and conspicuous on his thin

He grunted at Fuselli, sat down at the desk, and began at once peering
among the order slips.

"Anything in our mailbox this morning?" he asked Fuselli in a hoarse

"It's all there, sergeant," said Fuselli.

The sergeant peered about the desk some more.

"Ye'll have to wash that window today," he said after a pause.
"Major's likely to come round here any time.... Ought to have been done

"All right," said Fuselli dully.

He slouched over to the corner of the room, got the worn broom and began
sweeping down the stairs. The dust rose about him, making him cough.
He stopped and leaned on the broom. He thought of all the days that had
gone by since he'd last seen those fellows, Andrews and Chrisfield,
at training camp in America; and of all the days that would go by. He
started sweeping again, sweeping the dust down from stair to stair.

Fuselli sat on the end of his bunk. He had just shaved. It was a Sunday
morning and he looked forward to having the afternoon off. He rubbed his
face on his towel and got to his feet. Outside, the rain fell in great
silvery sheets, so that the noise on the tarpaper roof of the barracks
was almost deafening.

Fuselli noticed, at the other end of the row of bunks, a group of
men who all seemed to be looking at the same thing. Rolling down his
sleeves, with his tunic hitched over one arm, he walked down to see what
was the matter. Through the patter of the rain, he heard a thin voice

"It ain't no use, sergeant, I'm sick. I ain't a' goin' to get up."

"The kid's crazy," someone beside Fuselli said, turning away.

"You get up this minute," roared the sergeant. He was a big man with
black hair who looked like a lumberman. He stood over the bunk. In the
bunk at the end of a bundle of blankets was the chalk-white face of
Stockton. The boy's teeth were clenched, and his eyes were round and
protruding, it seemed from terror.

"You get out o' bed this minute," roared the sergeant again.

The boy; was silent; his white cheeks quivered.

"What the hell's the matter with him?"

"Why don't you yank him out yourself, Sarge?"

"You get out of bed this minute," shouted the sergeant again, paying no

The men gathered about walked away. Fuselli watched fascinated from a
little distance.

"All right, then, I'll get the lieutenant. This is a court-martial
offence. Here, Morton and Morrison, you're guards over this man."

The boy lay still in his blankets. He closed his eyes. By the way
the blanket rose and fell over his chest, they could see that he was
breathing heavily.

"Say, Stockton, why don't you get up, you fool?"' said Fuselli. "You
can't buck the whole army."

The boy didn't answer.

Fuselli walked away.

Online LibraryJohn Dos PassosThree Soldiers → online text (page 8 of 31)