John Dos Passos.

Three Soldiers online

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"He's crazy," he muttered.

The lieutenant was a stoutish red-faced man who came in puffing followed
by the tall sergeant. He stopped and shook the water off his Campaign
hat. The rain kept up its deafening patter on the roof.

"Look here, are you sick? If you are, report sick call at once," said
the lieutenant in an elaborately kind voice.

The boy looked at him dully and did not answer.

"You should get up and stand at attention when an officer speaks to you.

"I ain't goin' to get up," came the thin voice.

The officer's red face became crimson.

"Sergeant, what's the matter with the man?" he asked in a furious tone.

"I can't do anything with him, lieutenant. I think he's gone crazy."

"Rubbish.... Mere insubordination.... You're under arrest, d'ye hear?"
he shouted towards the bed.

There was no answer. The rain pattered hard on the roof.

"Have him brought down to the guardhouse, by force if necessary,"
snapped the lieutenant. He strode towards the door. "And sergeant, start
drawing up court-martial papers at once." The door slammed behind him.

"Now you've got to get him up," said the sergeant to the two guards.

Fuselli walked away.

"Ain't some people damn fools?" he said to a man at the other end of the
barracks. He stood looking out of the window at the bright sheets of the

"Well, get him up," shouted the sergeant.

The boy lay with his eyes closed, his chalk-white face half-hidden by
the blankets; he was very still.

"Well, will you get up and go to the guardhouse, or have we to carry you
there?" shouted the sergeant.

The guards laid hold of him gingerly and pulled him up to a sitting

"All right, yank him out of bed."

The frail form in khaki shirt and whitish drawers was held up for a
moment between the two men. Then it fell a limp heap on the floor.

"Say, Sarge, he's fainted."

"The hell he has.... Say, Morrison, ask one of the orderlies to come up
from the Infirmary."

"He ain't fainted.... The kid's dead," said the other man.

"Give me a hand."

The sergeant helped lift the body on the bed again. "Well, I'll be
goddamned," said the sergeant.

The eyes had opened. They covered the head with a blanket.


The fields and the misty blue-green woods slipped by slowly as the box
car rumbled and jolted over the rails, now stopping for hours on sidings
amid meadows, where it was quiet and where above the babel of voices
of the regiment you could hear the skylarks, now clattering fast over
bridges and along the banks of jade-green rivers where the slim poplars
were just coming into leaf and where now and then a fish jumped. The men
crowded in the door, grimy and tired, leaning on each other's shoulders
and watching the plowed lands slip by and the meadows where the
golden-green grass was dappled with buttercups, and the villages of
huddled red roofs lost among pale budding trees and masses of peach
blossom. Through the smells of steam and coal smoke and of unwashed
bodies in uniforms came smells of moist fields and of manure from
fresh-sowed patches and of cows and pasture lands just coming into

"Must be right smart o'craps in this country.... Ain't like that damn
Polignac, Andy?" said Chrisfield.

"Well, they made us drill so hard there wasn't any time for the grass to

"You're damn right there warn't."

"Ah'd lak te live in this country a while," said Chrisfield.

"We might ask 'em to let us off right here."

"Can't be that the front's like this," said Judkins, poking his head
out between Andrews's and Chrisfield's heads so that the bristles of his
unshaven chin rubbed against Chrisfield's cheek. It was a large square
head with closely cropped light hair and porcelain-blue eyes under lids
that showed white in the red sunburned face, and a square jaw made a
little grey by the sprouting beard.

"Say, Andy, how the hell long have we all been in this goddam train?...
Ah've done lost track o' the time...."

"What's the matter; are you gettin' old, Chris?" asked Judkins laughing.

Chrisfield had slipped out of the place he held and began poking himself
in between Andrews and Judkins.

"We've been on this train four days and five nights, an' we've got half
a day's rations left, so we must be getting somewhere," said Andrews.

"It can't be like this at the front."

"It must be spring there as well as here," said Andrews.

It was a day of fluffy mauve-tinted clouds that moved across the sky,
sometimes darkening to deep blue where a small rainstorm trailed across
the hills, sometimes brightening to moments of clear sunlight that gave
blue shadows to the poplars and shone yellow on the smoke of the engine
that puffed on painfully at the head of the long train.

"Funny, ain't it? How li'l everythin' is," said Chrisfield. "Out Indiana
way we wouldn't look at a cornfield that size. But it sort o' reminds me
the way it used to be out home in the spring o' the year."

"I'd like to see Indiana in the springtime," said Andrews.

"Well you'll come out when the war's over and us guys is all
home... won't you, Andy?"

"You bet I will."

They were going into the suburbs of a town. Rows and clusters of little
brick and stucco houses were appearing along the roads. It began to rain
from a sky full of lights of amber and lilac color. The slate roofs and
the pinkish-grey streets of the town shone cheerfully in the rain. The
little patches of garden were all vivid emerald-green. Then they were
looking at rows and rows of red chimney pots over wet slate roofs that
reflected the bright sky. In the distance rose the purple-grey spire of
a church and the irregular forms of old buildings. They passed through a

"Dijon," read Andrews. On the platform were French soldiers in their
blue coats and a good sprinkling of civilians.

"Gee, those are about the first real civies I've seen since I came
overseas," said Judkins. "Those goddam country people down at Polignac
didn't look like real civilians. There's folks dressed like it was New

They had left the station and were rumbling slowly past interminable
freight trains. At last the train came to a dead stop.

A whistle sounded.

"Don't nobody get out," shouted the sergeant from the car ahead.

"Hell! They keep you in this goddam car like you was a convict,"
muttered Chrisfield.

"I'd like to get out and walk around Dijon."

"O boy!"

"I swear I'd make a bee line for a dairy lunch," said Judkins.

"Hell of a fine dairy lunch you'll find among those goddam frogs. No,
vin blank is all you'ld get in that goddam town."

"Ah'm goin' to sleep," said Chrisfield. He stretched himself out on the
pile of equipment at the end of the car. Andrews sat down near him and
stared at his mud-caked boots, running one of his long hands, as brown
as Chrisfield's now, through his light short-cut hair.

Chrisfield lay looking at the gaunt outline of Andrews's face against
the light through half-closed eyes. And he felt a warm sort of a smile
inside him as he said to himself: "He's a damn good kid." Then
he thought of the spring in the hills of southern Indiana and the
mocking-bird singing in the moonlight among the flowering locust trees
behind the house. He could almost smell the heavy sweetness of the
locust blooms, as he used to smell them sitting on the steps after
supper, tired from a day's heavy plowing, while the clatter of his
mother's housework came from the kitchen. He didn't wish he was back
there, but it was pleasant to think of it now and then, and how the
yellow farmhouse looked and the red barn where his father never had been
able to find time to paint the door, and the tumble-down cowshed where
the shingles were always coming off. He wondered dully what it would be
like out there at the front. It couldn't be green and pleasant, the way
the country was here. Fellows always said it was hell out there. Well,
he didn't give a damn. He went to sleep.

He woke up gradually, the warm comfort of sleep giving place slowly to
the stiffness of his uncomfortable position with the hobnails of a boot
from the back of a pack sticking into his shoulder. Andrews was sitting
in the same position, lost in thought. The rest of the men sat at the
open doors or sprawled over the equipment.

Chrisfield got up, stretched himself, yawned, and went to the door to
look out. There was a heavy important step on the gravel outside. A
large man with black eyebrows that met over his nose and a very black
stubbly beard passed the car. There were a sergeants stripes on his arm.

"Say, Andy," cried Chrisfield, "that bastard is a sergeant."

"Who's that?" asked Andrews getting up with a smile, his blue eyes
looking mildly into Chrisfield's black ones.

"You know who Ah mean."

Under their heavy tan Chrisfield's rounded cheeks were flushed. His eyes
snapped under their long black lashes. His fists were clutched.

"Oh, I know, Chris. I didn't know he was in this regiment."

"God damn him!" muttered Chrisfield in a low voice, throwing himself
down on his packs again.

"Hold your horses, Chris," said Andrews. "We may all cash in our checks
before long... no use letting things worry us."

"I don't give a damn if we do."

"Nor do I, now." Andrews sat down beside Chrisfield again.

After a while the train got jerkily into motion. The wheels rumbled and
clattered over the rails and the clots of mud bounced up and down on the
splintered boards of the floor. Chrisfield pillowed his head on his arm
and went to sleep again, still smarting from the flush of his anger.

Andrews looked out through his fingers at the swaying black box car, at
the men sprawled about on the floor, their heads nodding with each jolt,
and at the mauve-grey clouds and bits of sparkling blue sky that he
could see behind the silhouettes of the heads and shoulders of the men
who stood in the doors. The wheels ground on endlessly.

The car stopped with a jerk that woke up all the sleepers and threw one
man off his feet. A whistle blew shrilly outside.

"All right, out of the cars! Snap it up; snap it up!" yelled the

The men piled out stiffly, handing the equipment out from hand to hand
till it formed a confused heap of packs and rifles outside. All down the
train at each door there was a confused pile of equipment and struggling

"Snap it up.... Full equipment.... Line up!" the sergeant yelled.

The men fell into line slowly, with their packs and rifles. Lieutenants
hovered about the edges of the forming lines, tightly belted into their
stiff trench coats, scrambling up and down the coal piles of the siding.
The men were given "at ease" and stood leaning on their rifles staring
at a green water-tank on three wooden legs, over the top of which had
been thrown a huge piece of torn grey cheesecloth. When the confused
sound of tramping feet subsided, they could hear a noise in the
distance, like someone lazily shaking a piece of heavy sheet-iron. The
sky was full of little dabs of red, purple and yellow and the purplish
sunset light was over everything.

The order came to march. They marched down a rutted road where the
puddles were so deep they had continually to break ranks to avoid them.
In a little pine-wood on one side were rows of heavy motor trucks and
ammunition caissons; supper was cooking in a field kitchen about which
clustered the truck drivers in their wide visored caps. Beyond the wood
the column turned off into a field behind a little group of stone and
stucco houses that had lost their roofs. In the field they halted. The
grass was brilliant emerald and the wood and the distant hills were
shades of clear deep blue. Wisps of pale-blue mist lay across the field.
In the turf here and there were small clean bites, that might have been
made by some strange animal. The men looked at them curiously.

"No lights, remember we're in sight of the enemy. A match might
annihilate the detachment," announced the lieutenant dramatically after
having given the orders for the pup tents to be set up.

When the tents were ready, the men stood about in the chilly white mist
that kept growing denser, eating their cold rations. Everywhere were
grumbling snorting voices.

"God, let's turn in, Chris, before our bones are frozen," said Andrews.

Guards had been posted and walked up and down with a business-like
stride, peering now and then suspiciously into the little wood where the
truck-drivers were.

Chrisfield and Andrews crawled into their little tent and rolled up
together in their blankets, getting as close to each other as they
could. At first it was very cold and hard, and they squirmed about
restlessly, but gradually the warmth from their bodies filled their thin
blankets and their muscles began to relax. Andrews went to sleep first
and Chrisfield lay listening to his deep breathing. There was a frown
on his face. He was thinking of the man who had walked past the train at
Dijon. The last time he had seen that man Anderson was at training camp.
He had only been a corporal then. He remembered the day the man had
been made corporal. It had not been long before that that Chrisfield had
drawn his knife on him, one night in the barracks. A fellow had caught
his hand just in time. Anderson had looked a bit pale that time and had
walked away. But he'd never spoken a word to Chrisfield since. As he lay
with his eyes closed, pressed close against Andrew's limp sleeping body,
Chrisfield could see the man's face, the eyebrows that joined across the
nose and the jaw, always blackish from the heavy beard, that looked blue
when he had just shaved. At last the tenseness of his mind slackened; he
thought of women for a moment, of a fair-haired girl he'd seen from
the train, and then suddenly crushing sleepiness closed down on him and
everything went softly warmly black, as he drifted off to sleep with no
sense but the coldness of one side and the warmth of his bunkie's body
on the other.

In the middle of the night he awoke and crawled out of the tent. Andrews
followed him. Their teeth chattered a little, and they stretched their
legs stiffly. It was cold, but the mist had vanished. The stars shone
brilliantly. They walked out a little way into the field away from the
bunch of tents to make water. A faint rustling and breathing noise, as
of animals herded together, came from the sleeping regiment. Somewhere
a brook made a shrill gurgling. They strained their ears, but they could
hear no guns. They stood side by side looking up at the multitudes of

"That's Orion," said Andrews.


"That bunch of stars there is called Orion. D'you see 'em. It's supposed
to look like a man with a bow, but he always looks to me like a fellow
striding across the sky."

"Some stars tonight, ain't there? Gee, what's that?"

Behind the dark hills a glow rose and fell like the glow in a forge.

"The front must be that way," said Andrews, shivering. "I guess we'll
know tomorrow."

"Yes; tomorrow night we'll know more about it," said Andrews. They stood
silent a moment listening to the noise the brook made.

"God, it's quiet, ain't it? This can't be the front. Smell that?"

"What is it?"

"Smells like an apple tree in bloom somewhere.... Hell, let's git in,
before our blankets git cold."

Andrews was still staring at the group of stars he had said was Orion.

Chrisfield pulled him by the arm. They crawled into their tent again,
rolled up together and immediately were crushed under an exhausted

As far ahead of him as Chrisfield could see were packs and heads with
caps at a variety of angles, all bobbing up and down with the swing of
the brisk marching time. A fine warm rain was falling, mingling with the
sweat that ran down his face. The column had been marching a long time
along a straight road that was worn and scarred with heavy traffic.
Fields and hedges where clusters of yellow flowers were in bloom had
given place to an avenue of poplars. The light wet trunks and the stiff
branches hazy with green filed by, interminable, as interminable as the
confused tramp of feet and jingle of equipment that sounded in his ears.

"Say, are we goin' towards the front?"

"Goddamned if I know."

"Ain't no front within miles."

Men's sentences came shortly through their heavy breathing.

The column shifted over to the side of the road to avoid a train of
motor trucks going the other way. Chrisfield felt the heavy mud spurt up
over him as truck after truck rumbled by. With the wet back of one hand
he tried to wipe it off his face, but the grit, when he rubbed it, hurt
his skin, made tender by the rain. He swore long and whiningly, half
aloud. His rifle felt as heavy as an iron girder.

They entered a village of plaster-and-timber houses. Through open doors
they could see into comfortable kitchens where copper pots gleamed and
where the floors were of clean red tiles. In front of some of the houses
were little gardens full of crocuses and hyacinths where box-bushes
shone a very dark green in the rain. They marched through the square
with its pavement of little yellow rounded cobbles, its grey church with
a pointed arch in the door, its cafes with names painted over them.
Men and women looked out of doors and windows. The column perceptibly
slackened its speed, but kept on, and as the houses dwindled and became
farther apart along the road the men's hope of stopping vanished. Ears
were deafened by the confused tramp of feet on the macadam road. Men's
feet seemed as lead, as if all the weight of the pack hung on them.
Shoulders, worn callous, began to grow tender and sore under the
constant sweating. Heads drooped. Each man's eyes were on the heels
of the man ahead of him that rose and fell, rose and fell endlessly.
Marching became for each man a personal struggle with his pack,
that seemed to have come alive, that seemed something malicious and
overpowering, wrestling to throw him.

The rain stopped and the sky brightened a little, taking on pale
yellowish lights as if the clouds that hid the sun were growing thin.

The column halted at the edge of a group of farms and barns that
scattered along the road. The men sprawled in all directions along
the roadside hiding the bright green grass with the mud-color of their

Chrisfield lay in the field beside the road, pressing his hot face into
the wet sprouting clover. The blood throbbed through his ears. His arms
and legs seemed to cleave to the ground, as if he would never be able
to move them again. He closed his eyes. Gradually a cold chill began
stealing through his body. He sat up and slipped his arms out of the
harness of his pack. Someone was handing him a cigarette, and he sniffed
a little acrid sweet smoke.

Andrews was lying beside him, his head propped against his pack,
smoking, and poking a cigarette towards his friend with a muddy
hand. His blue eyes looked strangely from out the flaming red of his
mud-splotched face.

Chrisfield took the cigarette, and fumbled in his pocket for a match.

"That nearly did it for me," said Andrews.

Chrisfield grunted. He pulled greedily on the cigarette.

A whistle blew.

Slowly the men dragged themselves off the ground and fell into line,
drooping under the weight of their equipment.

The companies marched off separately.

Chrisfield overheard the lieutenant saying to a sergeant:

"Damn fool business that. Why the hell couldn't they have sent us here
in the first place?"

"So we ain't goin' to the front after all?" said the sergeant.

"Front, hell!" said the lieutenant. The lieutenant was a small man
who looked like a jockey with a coarse red face which, now that he was
angry, was almost purple.

"I guess they're going to quarter us here," said somebody.

Immediately everybody began saying: "We're going to be quartered here."

They stood waiting in formation a long while, the packs cutting into
their backs and shoulders. At last the sergeant shouted out:

"All right, take yer stuff upstairs." Stumbling on each others' heels
they climbed up into a dark loft, where the air was heavy with the smell
of hay and with an acridity of cow manure from the stables below. There
was a little straw in the corners, on which those who got there first
spread their blankets.

Chrisfield and Andrews tucked themselves in a corner from which through
a hole where the tiles had fallen off the roof, they could see down into
the barnyard, where white and speckled chickens pecked about with jerky
movements. A middle-aged woman stood in the doorway of the house looking
suspiciously at the files of khaki-clad soldiers that shuffled slowly
into the barns by every door.

An officer went up to her, a little red book in his hand. A conversation
about some matter proceeded painfully. The officer grew very red.
Andrews threw back his head and laughed, luxuriously rolling from side
to side in the straw. Chrisfield laughed too, he hardly knew why. Over
their heads they could hear the feet of pigeons on the roof, and a
constant drowsy rou-cou-cou-cou.

Through the barnyard smells began to drift... the greasiness of food
cooking in the field kitchen.

"Ah hope they give us somethin' good to eat," said Chrisfield. "Ah'm
hongry as a thrasher."

"So am I," said Andrews.

"Say, Andy, you kin talk their language a li'l', can't ye?"

Andrews nodded his head vaguely.

"Well, maybe we kin git some aigs or somethin' out of the lady down
there. Will ye try after mess?"

"All right."

They both lay back in the straw and closed their eyes. Their cheeks
still burned from the rain. Everything seemed very peaceful; the men
sprawled about talking in low drowsy voices. Outside, another shower had
come up and beat softly on the tiles of the roof. Chrisfield thought
he had never been so comfortable in his life, although his soaked
shoes pinched his cold feet and his knees were wet and cold. But in the
drowsiness of the rain and of voices talking quietly about him, he fell

He dreamed he was home in Indiana, but instead of his mother cooking at
the stove in the kitchen, there was the Frenchwoman who had stood in the
farmhouse door, and near her stood a lieutenant with a little red book
in his hand. He was eating cornbread and syrup off a broken plate. It
was fine cornbread with a great deal of crust on it, crisp and hot, on
which the butter was cold and sweet to his tongue. Suddenly he stopped
eating and started swearing, shouting at the top of his lungs: "You
goddam..." he started, but he couldn't seem to think of anything more
to say. "You goddam..." he started again. The lieutenant looked towards
him, wrinkling his black eyebrows that met across his nose. He was
Sergeant Anderson. Chris drew his knife and ran at him, but it was Andy
his bunkie he had run his knife into. He threw his arms round Andy's
body, crying hot tears.... He woke up. Mess kits were clinking all
about the dark crowded loft. The men had already started piling down the

The larks filled the wine-tinged air with a constant chiming of little
bells. Chrisfield and Andrews were strolling across a field of white
clover that covered the brow of a hill. Below in the valley they could
see a cluster of red roofs of farms and the white ribbon of the road
where long trains of motor trucks crawled like beetles. The sun had just
set behind the blue hills the other side of the shallow valley. The air
was full of the smell of clover and of hawthorn from the hedgerows. They
took deep breaths as they crossed the field.

"It's great to get away from that crowd," Andrews was saying.

Chrisfield walked on silently, dragging his feet through the matted
clover. A leaden dullness weighed like some sort of warm choking
coverlet on his limbs, so that it seemed an effort to walk, an effort to
speak. Yet under it his muscles were taut and trembling as he had known
them to be before when he was about to get into a fight or to make love
to a girl.

"Why the hell don't they let us git into it?" he said suddenly.

"Yes, anything'ld be better than this... wait, wait, wait."

They walked on, hearing the constant chirrup of the larks, the brush
of their feet through the clover, the faint jingle of some coins in
Chrisfield's pocket, and in the distance the irregular snoring of an
aeroplane motor. As they walked Andrews leaned over from time to time
and picked a couple of the white clover flowers.

The aeroplane came suddenly nearer and swooped in a wide curve above the
field, drowning every sound in the roar of its exhaust. They made out
the figures of the pilot and the observer before the plane rose again

Online LibraryJohn Dos PassosThree Soldiers → online text (page 9 of 31)