Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos
Three Soldiers (1921) was written by an author who was in the midst of the blood and guts of war. Dos Passos used bold realism to describe his experiences as an ambulance driver and in the Army Medical Corps during World War I. H.L. Mencken wrote about the book: “It changed the whole tone of American opinion about the war; it even changed the recollection of actual veterans of the war…it took bold realism to disentangle their recollections from the prevailing buncombe and sentimentality.”
Dos Passos weaves life and death throughout his work, like a soldier stopping to admire the eyes of a frog in a puddle while his unit marches ahead, or as in the end of Part Four: “Birds were singing among the budding trees. The young grass by the roadside kept the marks of the soldiers’ bodies.
“Les contemporains qui souffrent de certaines choses ne peuvent s’en souvenir
qu’avec une horreur qui paralyse tout autre plaisir, meme celui de lire un conte.”
Translation: “Contemporaries who suffer from certain things can only remember it with a horror that paralyzes any other pleasure, even that of reading a tale.”]
Part One: Making the Mold
The company stood at attention, each man looking straight before him at the empty parade ground, where the cinder piles showed purple with evening. On the wind that smelt of barracks and disinfectant there was a faint greasiness of food cooking. At the other side of the wide field long lines of men shuffled slowly into the narrow wooden shanty that was the mess hall. Chins down, chests out, legs twitching and tired from the afternoon’s drilling, the company stood at attention. Each man stared straight in front of him, some vacantly with resignation, some trying to amuse themselves by noting minutely every object in their field of vision,—the cinder piles, the long shadows of the barracks and mess halls where they could see men standing about, spitting, smoking, leaning against clapboard walls. Some of the men in line could hear their watches ticking in their pockets.
Someone moved, his feet making a crunching noise in the cinders.
The sergeant’s voice snarled out: “You men are at attention. Quit yer wrigglin’ there, you!”
The men nearest the offender looked at him out of the corners of their eyes.
Two officers, far out on the parade ground, were coming towards them. By their gestures and the way they walked, the men at attention could see that they were chatting about something that amused them. One of the officers laughed boyishly, turned away and walked slowly back across the parade ground. The other, who was the lieutenant, came towards them smiling. As he approached his company, the smile left his lips and he advanced his chin, walking with heavy precise steps.
“Sergeant, you may dismiss the company.” The lieutenant’s voice was pitched in a hard staccato.
The sergeant’s hand snapped up to salute like a block signal. “Companee dis…missed,” he rang out.
The row of men in khaki became a crowd of various individuals with dusty boots and dusty faces. Ten minutes later they lined up and marched in a column of fours to mess. A few red filaments of electric lights gave a dusty glow in the brownish obscurity where the long tables and benches and the board floors had a faint smell of garbage mingled with the smell of the disinfectant the tables had been washed off with after the last meal. The men, holding their oval mess kits in front of them, filed by the great tin buckets at the door, out of which meat and potatoes were splashed into each plate by a sweating K.P. in blue denims.
“Don’t look so bad tonight,” said Fuselli to the man opposite him as he hitched his sleeves up at the wrists and leaned over his steaming food. He was sturdy, with curly hair and full vigorous lips that he smacked hungrily as he ate.
“It ain’t,” said the pink flaxen-haired youth opposite him, who wore his broad-brimmed hat on the side of his head with a certain jauntiness:
“I got a pass tonight,” said Fuselli, tilting his head vainly.
“Goin’ to tear things up?”
“Man…I got a girl at home back in Frisco. She’s a good kid.”
“Yer right not to go with any of the girls in this goddam town…. They ain’t clean, none of ‘em…. That is if ye want to go overseas.”
The flaxen-haired youth leaned across the table earnestly.
“I’m goin’ to git some more chow: Wait for me, will yer?” said Fuselli.
“What yer going to do down town?” asked the flaxen-haired youth when Fuselli came back.
“Dunno,—run round a bit an’ go to the movies,” he answered, filling his mouth with potato.
“Gawd, it’s time fer retreat.” They overheard a voice behind them.
Fuselli stuffed his mouth as full as he could and emptied the rest of his meal reluctantly into the garbage pail.
A few moments later he stood stiffly at attention in a khaki row that was one of hundreds of other khaki rows, identical, that filled all sides of the parade ground, while the bugle blew somewhere at the other end where the flag-pole was. Somehow it made him think of the man behind the desk in the office of the draft board who had said, handing him the papers sending him to camp, “I wish I was going with you,” and had held out a white bony hand that Fuselli, after a moment’s hesitation, had taken in his own stubby brown hand. The man had added fervently, “It must be grand, just grand, to feel the danger, the chance of being potted any minute. Good luck, young feller…. Good luck.” Fuselli remembered unpleasantly his paper-white face and the greenish look of his bald head; but the words had made him stride out of the office sticking out his chest, brushing truculently past a group of men in the door. Even now the memory of it, mixing with the strains of the national anthem made him feel important, truculent.
“Squads right!” came an order. Crunch, crunch, crunch in the gravel. The companies were going back to their barracks. He wanted to smile but he didn’t dare. He wanted to smile because he had a pass till midnight, because in ten minutes he’d be outside the gates, outside the green fence and the sentries and the strands of barbed wire. Crunch, crunch, crunch; oh, they were so slow in getting back to the barracks and he was losing time, precious free minutes. “Hep, hep, hep,” cried the sergeant, glaring down the ranks, with his aggressive bulldog expression, to where someone had fallen out of step.
The company stood at attention in the dusk. Fuselli was biting the inside of his lips with impatience. Minutes at last, as if reluctantly, the sergeant sang out:
Fuselli hurried towards the gate, brandishing his pass with an important swagger.
Once out on the asphalt of the street, he looked down the long row of lawns and porches where violet arc lamps already contested the faint afterglow, drooping from their iron stalks far above the recently planted saplings of the avenue. He stood at the corner slouched against a telegraph pole, with the camp fence, surmounted by three strands of barbed wire, behind him, wondering which way he would go. This was a hell of a town anyway. And he used to think he wanted to travel round and see places.—“Home’ll be good enough for me after this,” he muttered. Walking down the long street towards the centre of town, where was the moving-picture show, he thought of his home, of the dark apartment on the ground floor of a seven-storey house where his aunt lived. “Gee, she used to cook swell,” he murmured regretfully.
On a warm evening like this he would have stood round at the corner where the drugstore was, talking to fellows he knew, giggling when the girls who lived in the street, walking arm and arm, twined in couples or trios, passed by affecting ignorance of the glances that followed them. Or perhaps he would have gone walking with Al, who worked in the same optical-goods store, down through the glaring streets of the theatre and restaurant quarter, or along the wharves and ferry slips, where they would have sat smoking and looking out over the dark purple harbor, with its winking lights and its moving ferries spilling swaying reflections in the water out of their square reddish-glowing windows. If they had been lucky, they would have seen a liner come in through the Golden Gate, growing from a blur of light to a huge moving brilliance, like the front of a high-class theatre, that towered above the ferry boats. You could often hear the thump of the screw and the swish of the bow cutting the calm baywater, and the sound of a band playing, that came alternately faint and loud. “When I git rich,” Fuselli had liked to say to Al, “I’m going to take a trip on one of them liners.”
“Yer dad come over from the old country in one, didn’t he?” Al would ask.
“Oh, he came steerage. I’d stay at home if I had to do that. Man, first class for me, a cabin de lux, when I git rich.”
But here he was in this town in the East, where he didn’t know anybody and where there was no place to go but the movies.
“‘Lo, buddy,” came a voice beside him. The tall youth who had sat opposite at mess was just catching up to him. “Goin’ to the movies?”
“Yare, nauthin’ else to do.”
“Here’s a rookie. Just got to camp this mornin’,” said the tall youth, jerking his head in the direction of the man beside him.
“You’ll like it. Ain’t so bad as it seems at first,” said Fuselli encouragingly.
“I was just telling him,” said the other, “to be careful as hell not to get in wrong. If ye once get in wrong in this damn army… it’s hell.”
“You bet yer life… so they sent ye over to our company, did they, rookie? Ain’t so bad. The sergeant’s sort o’ decent if yo’re in right with him, but the lieutenant’s a stinker…. Where you from?”
“New York,” said the rookie, a little man of thirty with an ash-colored face and a shiny Jewish nose. “I’m in the clothing business there. I oughtn’t to be drafted at all. It’s an outrage. I’m consumptive.” He spluttered in a feeble squeaky voice.
“They’ll fix ye up, don’t you fear,” said the tall youth. “They’ll make you so goddam well ye won’t know yerself. Yer mother won’t know ye, when you get home, rookie…. But you’re in luck.”
“Bein’ from New York. The corporal, Tim Sidis, is from New York, an’ all the New York fellers in the company got a graft with him.”
“What kind of cigarettes d’ye smoke?” asked the tall youth.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Ye’d better learn. The corporal likes fancy ciggies and so does the sergeant; you jus’ slip ‘em each a butt now and then. May help ye to get in right with ‘em.”
“Don’t do no good,” said Fuselli…. “It’s juss luck. But keep neat-like and smilin’ and you’ll get on all right. And if they start to ride ye, show fight. Ye’ve got to be hard boiled to git on in this army.”
“Ye’re goddam right,” said the tall youth. “Don’t let ‘em ride yer…. What’s yer name, rookie?”
“This feller’s name’s Powers…. Bill Powers. Mine’s Fuselli…. Goin’ to the movies, Mr. Eisenstein?”
“No, I’m trying to find a skirt.” The little man leered wanly. “Glad to have got ackwainted.”
“Goddam kike!” said Powers as Eisenstein walked off up a side street, planted, like the avenue, with saplings on which the sickly leaves rustled in the faint breeze that smelt of factories and coal dust.
“Kikes ain’t so bad,” said Fuselli, “I got a good friend who’s a kike.”
They were coming out of the movies in a stream of people in which the blackish clothes of factory-hands predominated.
“I came near bawlin’ at the picture of the feller leavin’ his girl to go off to the war,” said Fuselli.
“It was just like it was with me. Ever been in Frisco, Powers?”
The tall youth shook his head. Then he took off his broad-brimmed hat and ran his fingers over his stubby tow-head.
“Gee, it was some hot in there,” he muttered.
“Well, it’s like this,” said Fuselli. “You have to cross the ferry to Oakland. My aunt… ye know I ain’t got any mother, so I always live at my aunt’s…. My aunt an’ her sister-in-law an’ Mabe… Mabe’s my girl… they all came over on the ferry-boat, ‘spite of my tellin’ ‘em I didn’t want ‘em. An’ Mabe said she was mad at me, ‘cause she’d seen the letter I wrote Georgine Slater. She was a toughie, lived in our street, I used to write mash notes to. An’ I kep’ tellin’ Mabe I’d done it juss for the hell of it, an’ that I didn’t mean nawthin’ by it. An’ Mabe said she wouldn’t never forgive me, an’ then I said maybe I’d be killed an’ she’d never see me again, an’ then we all began to bawl. Gawd! it was a mess…. ”
“It’s hell sayin’ good-by to girls,” said Powers, understandingly. “Cuts a feller all up. I guess it’s better to go with coosies. Ye don’t have to say good-by to them.”
“Ever gone with a coosie?”
“Not exactly,” admitted the tall youth, blushing all over his pink face, so that it was noticeable even under the ashen glare of the arc lights on the avenue that led towards camp.
“I have,” said Fuselli, with a certain pride. “I used to go with a Portugee girl. My but she was a toughie. I’ve given all that up now I’m engaged, though…. But I was tellin’ ye…. Well, we finally made up an’ I kissed her an’ Mabe said she’d never marry any one but me. So when we was walkin” up the street I spied a silk service flag in a winder, that was all fancy with a star all trimmed up to beat the band, an’ I said to myself, I’m goin’ to give that to Mabe, an’ I ran in an’ bought it. I didn’t give a hoot in hell what it cost. So when we was all kissin’ and bawlin’ when I was goin’ to leave them to report to the overseas detachment, I shoved it into her hand, an’ said, ‘Keep that, girl, an’ don’t you forgit me.’ An’ what did she do but pull out a five-pound box o’ candy from behind her back an’ say, ‘Don’t make yerself sick, Dan.’ An’ she’d had it all the time without my knowin’ it. Ain’t girls clever?”
“Yare,” said the tall youth vaguely.
Along the rows of cots, when Fuselli got back to the barracks, men were talking excitedly.
“There’s hell to pay, somebody’s broke out of the jug.”
“Damned if I know.”
“Sergeant Timmons said he made a rope of his blankets.”
“No, the feller on guard helped him to get away.”
“Like hell he did. It was like this. I was walking by the guardhouse when they found out about it.”
“What company did he belong ter?”
“What’s his name?”
“Some guy on trial for insubordination. Punched an officer in the jaw.”
“I’d a liked to have seen that.”
“Anyhow he’s fixed himself this time.”
“You’re goddam right.”
“Will you fellers quit talkin’? It’s after taps,” thundered the sergeant, who sat reading the paper at a little board desk at the door of the barracks under the feeble light of one small bulb, carefully screened. “You’ll have the O. D. down on us.”
Fuselli wrapped the blanket round his head and prepared to sleep. Snuggled down into the blankets on the narrow cot, he felt sheltered from the sergeant’s thundering voice and from the cold glare of officers’ eyes. He felt cosy and happy like he had felt in bed at home, when he had been a little kid. For a moment he pictured to himself the other man, the man who had punched an officer’s jaw, dressed like he was, maybe only nineteen, the same age like he was, with a girl like Mabe waiting for him somewhere. How cold and frightful it must feel to be out of the camp with the guard looking for you! He pictured himself running breathless down a long street pursued by a company with guns, by officers whose eyes glinted cruelly like the pointed tips of bullets. He pulled the blanket closer round his head, enjoying the warmth and softness of the wool against his cheek. He must remember to smile at the sergeant when he passed him off duty. Somebody had said there’d be promotions soon. Oh, he wanted so hard to be promoted. It’d be so swell if he could write back to Mabe and tell her to address her letters Corporal Dan Fuselli. He must be more careful not to do anything that would get him in wrong with anybody. He must never miss an opportunity to show them what a clever kid he was. “Oh, when we’re ordered overseas, I’ll show them,” he thought ardently, and picturing to himself long movie reels of heroism he went off to sleep.
A sharp voice beside his cot woke him with a jerk.
“Get up, you.”
The white beam of a pocket searchlight was glaring in the face of the man next to him.
“The O. D.” said Fuselli to himself.
“Get up, you,” came the sharp voice again.
The man in the next cot stirred and opened his eyes.
“Here, sir,” muttered the man in the next cot, his eyes blinking sleepily in the glare of the flashlight. He got out of bed and stood unsteadily at attention.
“Don’t you know better than to sleep in your O. D. shirt? Take it off.”
“What’s your name?”
The man looked up, blinking, too dazed to speak. “Don’t know your own name, eh?” said the officer, glaring at the man savagely, using his curt voice like a whip.—“Quick, take off yer shirt and pants and get back to bed.”
The Officer of the Day moved on, flashing his light to one side and the other in his midnight inspection of the barracks. Intense blackness again, and the sound of men breathing deeply in sleep, of men snoring. As he went to sleep Fuselli could hear the man beside him swearing, monotonously, in an even whisper, pausing now and then to think of new filth, of new combinations of words, swearing away his helpless anger, soothing himself to sleep by the monotonous reiteration of his swearing.
A little later Fuselli woke with a choked nightmare cry. He had dreamed that he had smashed the O. D. in the jaw and had broken out of the jug and was running, breathless, stumbling, falling, while the company on guard chased him down an avenue lined with little dried-up saplings, gaining on him, while with voices metallic as the clicking of rifle triggers officers shouted orders, so that he was certain to be caught, certain to be shot. He shook himself all over, shaking off the nightmare as a dog shakes off water, and went back to sleep again, snuggling into his blankets.
John Andrews stood naked in the center of a large bare room, of which the walls and ceiling and floor were made of raw pine boards. The air was heavy from the steam heat. At a desk in one corner a typewriter clicked spasmodically.
“Say, young feller, d’you know how to spell imbecility?”
John Andrews walked over to the desk, told him, and added, “Are you going to examine me?”
The man went on typewriting without answering. John Andrews stood in the center of the floor with his arms folded, half amused, half angry, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, listening to the sound of the typewriter and of the man’s voice as he read out each word of the report he was copying.
“Recommendation for discharge”… click, click…”Damn this typewriter…. Private Coe Elbert”… click, click. “Damn these rotten army typewriters…. Reason… mental deficiency. History of Case….” At that moment the recruiting sergeant came back. “Look here, if you don’t have that recommendation ready in ten minutes Captain Arthurs’ll be mad as hell about it, Hill. For God’s sake get it done. He said already that if you couldn’t do the work, to get somebody who could. You don’t want to lose your job do you?”
“Hullo,” the sergeant’s eyes lit on John Andrews, “I’d forgotten you. Run around the room a little…. No, not that way. Just a little so I can test yer heart…. God, these rookies are thick.”
While he stood tamely being prodded and measured, feeling like a prize horse at a fair, John Andrews listened to the man at the typewriter, whose voice went on monotonously. “No… record of sexual dep…. O hell, this eraser’s no good!… pravity or alcoholism; spent… normal… youth on farm. App-ear-ance normal though im… say, how many ‘m’s’ in immature?”
“All right, put yer clothes on,” said the recruiting sergeant. “Quick, I can’t spend all day. Why the hell did they send you down here alone?”
“The papers were balled up,” said Andrews.
“Scores ten years… in test B,” went on the voice of the man at the typewriter. “Sen… exal ment… m-e-n-t-a-l-i-t-y that of child of eight. Seems unable… to either…. Goddam this man’s writin’. How kin I copy it when he don’t write out his words?”
“All right. I guess you’ll do. Now there are some forms to fill out. Come over here.”
Andrews followed the recruiting sergeant to a desk in the far corner of the room, from which he could hear more faintly the click, click of the typewriter and the man’s voice mumbling angrily.
“Forgets to obey orders…. Responds to no form of per… suasion. M-e-m-o-r-y, nil.”
“All right. Take this to barracks B…. Fourth building, to the right; shake a leg,” said the recruiting sergeant.
Andrews drew a deep breath of the sparkling air outside. He stood irresolutely a moment on the wooden steps of the building looking down the row of hastily constructed barracks. Some were painted green, some were of plain boards, and some were still mere skeletons. Above his head great piled, rose-tinted clouds were moving slowly across the immeasurable free sky. His glance slid down the sky to some tall trees that flamed bright yellow with autumn outside the camp limits, and then to the end of the long street of barracks, where was a picket fence and a sentry walking to and fro, to and fro. His brows contracted for a moment. Then he walked with a sort of swagger towards the fourth building to the right.
John Andrews was washing windows. He stood in dirty blue denims at the top of a ladder, smearing with a soapy cloth the small panes of the barrack windows. His nostrils were full of a smell of dust and of the sandy quality of the soap. A little man with one lined greyish-red cheek puffed out by tobacco followed him up also on a ladder, polishing the panes with a dry cloth till they shone and reflected the mottled cloudy sky. Andrews’s legs were tired from climbing up and down the ladder, his hands were sore from the grittiness of the soap; as he worked he looked down, without thinking, on rows of cots where the blankets were all folded the same way, on some of which men were sprawled in attitudes of utter relaxation. He kept remarking to himself how strange it was that he was not thinking of anything. In the last few days his mind seemed to have become a hard meaningless core.
“How long do we have to do this?” he asked the man who was working with him. The man went on chewing, so that Andrews thought he was not going to answer at all. He was just beginning to speak again when the man, balancing thoughtfully on top of his ladder, drawled out:
“We won’t finish today then?”
The man shook his head and wrinkled his face into a strange spasm as he spat.
“Been here long?”
“Not so long.”
“Three months…. Ain’t so long.” The man spat again, and climbing down from his ladder waited, leaning against the wall, until Andrews should finish soaping his window.
“I’ll go crazy if I stay here three months…. I’ve been here a week,” muttered Andrews between his teeth as he climbed down and moved his ladder to the next window.
They both climbed their ladders again in silence.
“How’s it you’re in Casuals?” asked Andrews again.
“Ain’t got no lungs.”
“Why don’t they discharge you?”
“Reckon they’re going to, soon.”
They worked on in silence for a long time. Andrews stared at the upper right-hand corner and smeared with soap each pane of the window in turn. Then he climbed down, moved his ladder, and started on the next window. At times he would start in the middle of the window for variety. As he worked a rhythm began pushing its way through the hard core of his mind, leavening it, making it fluid. It expressed the vast dusty dullness, the men waiting in rows on drill fields, standing at attention, the monotony of feet tramping in unison, of the dust rising from the battalions going back and forth over the dusty drill fields. He felt the rhythm filling his whole body, from his sore hands to his legs, tired from marching back and forth from making themselves the same length as millions of other legs. His mind began unconsciously, from habit, working on it, orchestrating it. He could imagine a vast orchestra swaying with it. His heart was beating faster. He must make it into music; he must fix it in himself, so that he could make it into music and write it down, so that orchestras could play it and make the ears of multitudes feel it, make their flesh tingle with it.
He went on working through the endless afternoon, climbing up and down his ladder, smearing the barrack windows with a soapy rag. A silly phrase took the place of the welling of music in his mind: “Arbeit und Rhythmus.” He kept saying it over and over to himself: “Arbeit und Rhythmus.” He tried to drive the phrase out of his mind, to bury his mind in the music of the rhythm that had come to him, that expressed the dusty boredom, the harsh constriction of warm bodies full of gestures and attitudes and aspirations into moulds, like the moulds toy soldiers are cast in. The phrase became someone shouting raucously in his ears: “Arbeit und Rhythmus,”—drowning everything else, beating his mind hard again, parching it.
But suddenly he laughed aloud. Why, it was in German. He was being got ready to kill men who said that. If anyone said that, he was going to kill him. They were going to kill everybody who spoke that language, he and all the men whose feet he could hear tramping on the drill field, whose legs were all being made the same length on the drill field.
It was Saturday morning. Directed by the corporal, a bandy-legged Italian who even on the army diet managed to keep a faint odour of garlic about him, three soldiers in blue denims were sweeping up the leaves in the street between the rows of barracks.
“You fellers are slow as molasses…. Inspection in twenty-five minutes,” he kept saying.
The soldiers raked on doggedly, paying no attention. “You don’t give a damn. If we don’t pass inspection, I get hell—not you. Please queeck. Here, you, pick up all those goddam cigarette butts.”
Andrews made a grimace and began collecting the little grey sordid ends of burnt-out cigarettes. As he leant over he found himself looking into the dark-brown eyes of the soldier who was working beside him. The eyes were contracted with anger and there was a flush under the tan of the boyish face.
“Ah didn’t git in this here army to be ordered around by a goddam wop,” he muttered.
“Doesn’t matter much who you’re ordered around by, you’re ordered around just the same,” said Andrews. “Where d’ye come from, buddy?”
“Oh, I come from New York. My folks are from Virginia,” said Andrews.
“Indiana’s ma state. The tornado country…. Git to work; here’s that bastard wop comin’ around the buildin’.”
“Don’t pick ‘em up that-a-way; sweep ‘em up,” shouted the corporal.
Andrews and the Indiana boy went round with a broom and a shovel collecting chewed-out quids of tobacco and cigar butts and stained bits of paper.
“What’s your name? Mahn’s Chrisfield. Folks all call me Chris.”
“Mine’s Andrews, John Andrews.”
“Ma dad uster have a hired man named Andy. Took sick an’ died last summer. How long d’ye reckon it’ll be before us-guys git overseas?”
“God, I don’t know.”
“Ah want to see that country over there.”
“You bet I do.”
“All right, what you fellers stand here for? Go and dump them garbage cans. Lively!” shouted the corporal waddling about importantly on his bandy legs. He kept looking down the row of barracks, muttering to himself, “Goddam…. Time fur inspectin’ now, goddam. Won’t never pass this time.”
His face froze suddenly into obsequious immobility. He brought his hand up to the brim of his hat. A group of officers strode past him into the nearest building.
John Andrews, coming back from emptying the garbage pails, went in the back door of his barracks.
“Attention!” came the cry from the other end. He made his neck and arms as rigid as possible.
Through the silent barracks came the hard clank of the heels of the officers inspecting.
A sallow face with hollow eyes and heavy square jaw came close to Andrews’s eyes. He stared straight before him noting the few reddish hairs on the officer’s Adam’s apple and the new insignia on either side of his collar.
“Sergeant, who is this man?” came a voice from the sallow face.
“Don’t know, sir; a new recruit, sir. Corporal Valori, who is this man?”
“The name’s Andrews, sergeant,” said the Italian corporal with an obsequious whine in his voice.
The officer addressed Andrews directly, speaking fast and loud. “How long have you been in the army?”
“One week, sir.”
“Don’t you know you have to be clean and shaved and ready for inspection every Saturday morning at nine?”
“I was cleaning the barracks, sir.”
“To teach you not to answer back when an officer addresses you….” The officer spaced his words carefully, lingering on them. As he spoke he glanced out of the corner of his eye at his superior and noticed the major was frowning. His tone changed ever so slightly. “If this ever occurs again you may be sure that disciplinary action will be taken…. Attention there!” At the other end of the barracks a man had moved. Again, amid absolute silence, could be heard the clanking of the officers’ heels as the inspection continued.
“Now, fellows, all together,” cried the “Y” man who stood with his arms stretched wide in front of the movie screen. The piano started jingling and the roomful of crowded soldiers roared out:
“Hail, Hail, the gang’s all here;
We’re going to get the Kaiser,
We’re going to get the Kaiser,
We’re going to get the Kaiser,
The rafters rang with their deep voices.
The “Y” man twisted his lean face into a facetious expression.
“Somebody tried to put one over on the ‘Y’ man and sing ‘What the hell do we care?’ But you do care, don’t you, Buddy?” he shouted.
There was a little rattle of laughter.
“Now, once more,” said the “Y” man again, “and lots of guts in the get and lots of kill in the Kaiser. Now all together…. ”
The moving pictures had begun. John Andrews looked furtively about him, at the face of the Indiana boy beside him intent on the screen, at the tanned faces and the close-cropped heads that rose above the mass of khaki-covered bodies about him. Here and there a pair of eyes glinted in the white flickering light from the screen. Waves of laughter or of little exclamations passed over them. They were all so alike, they seemed at moments to be but one organism. This was what he had sought when he had enlisted, he said to himself. It was in this that he would take refuge from the horror of the world that had fallen upon him. He was sick of revolt, of thought, of carrying his individuality like a banner above the turmoil. This was much better, to let everything go, to stamp out his maddening desire for music, to humble himself into the mud of common slavery. He was still tingling with sudden anger from the officer’s voice that morning: “Sergeant, who is this man?” The officer had stared in his face, as a man might stare at a piece of furniture.
“Ain’t this some film?” Chrisfield turned to him with a smile that drove his anger away in a pleasant feeling of comradeship.
“The part that’s comin’s fine. I seen it before out in Frisco,” said the man on the other side of Andrews. “Gee, it makes ye hate the Huns.”
The man at the piano jingled elaborately in the intermission between the two parts of the movie.
The Indiana boy leaned in front of John Andrews, putting an arm round his shoulders, and talked to the other man.
“You from Frisco?”
“That’s goddam funny. You’re from the Coast, this feller’s from New York, an’ Ah’m from ole Indiana, right in the middle.”
“What company you in?”
“Ah ain’t yet. This feller an me’s in Casuals.”
“That’s a hell of a place…. Say, my name’s Fuselli.”
“How soon’s it take a feller to git out o’ this camp?”
“Dunno. Some guys says three weeks and some says six months…. Say, mebbe you’ll get into our company. They transferred a lot of men out the other day, an’ the corporal says they’re going to give us rookies instead.”
“Goddam it, though, but Ah want to git overseas.”
“It’s swell over there,” said Fuselli, “everything’s awful pretty-like. Picturesque, they call it. And the people wears peasant costumes…. I had an uncle who used to tell me about it. He came from near Torino.”
“I dunno. He’s an Eyetalian.”
“Say, how long does it take to git overseas?”
“Oh, a week or two,” said Andrews.
“As long as that?” But the movie had begun again, unfolding scenes of soldiers in spiked helmets marching into Belgian cities full of little milk carts drawn by dogs and old women in peasant costume. There were hisses and catcalls when a German flag was seen, and as the troops were pictured advancing, bayonetting the civilians in wide Dutch pants, the old women with starched caps, the soldiers packed into the stuffy Y. M. C. A. hut shouted oaths at them. Andrews felt blind hatred stirring like something that had a life of its own in the young men about him. He was lost in it, carried away in it, as in a stampede of wild cattle. The terror of it was like ferocious hands clutching his throat. He glanced at the faces round him. They were all intent and flushed, glinting with sweat in the heat of the room.
As he was leaving the hut, pressed in a tight stream of soldiers moving towards the door, Andrews heard a man say:
“I never raped a woman in my life, but by God, I’m going to. I’d give a lot to rape some of those goddam German women.”
“I hate ‘em too,” came another voice, “men, women, children and unborn children. They’re either jackasses or full of the lust for power like their rulers are, to let themselves be governed by a bunch of warlords like that.”
“Ah’d lahk te cepture a German officer an’ make him shine ma boots an’ then shoot him dead,” said Chris to Andrews as they walked down the long row towards their barracks.
“But Ah’d a damn side rather shoot somebody else Ah know,” went on Chris intensely. “Don’t stay far from here either. An’ Ah’ll do it too, if he don’t let off pickin’ on me.”
“That big squirt Anderson they made a file closer at drill yesterday. He seems to think that just because Ah’m littler than him he can do anything he likes with me.”
Andrews turned sharply and looked in his companion’s face; something in the gruffness of the boy’s tone startled him. He was not accustomed to this. He had thought of himself as a passionate person, but never in his life had he wanted to kill a man.
“D’you really want to kill him?”
“Not now, but he gits the hell started in me, the way he teases me. Ah pulled ma knife on him yisterday. You wasn’t there. Didn’t ye notice Ah looked sort o’ upsot at drill?”
“Yes… but how old are you, Chris!”
“Ah’m twenty. You’re older than me, ain’t yer?”
They were leaning against the wall of their barracks, looking up at the brilliant starry night.
“Say, is the stars the same over there, overseas, as they is here?”
“I guess so,” said Andrews, laughing. “Though I’ve never been to see.”
“Ah never had much schoolin’,” went on Chris. “I lef school when I was twelve, ‘cause it warn’t much good, an’ dad drank so the folks needed me to work on the farm.”
“What do you grow in your part of the country?”
“Mostly coan. A little wheat an’ tobacca. Then we raised a lot o’ stock…. But Ah was juss going to tell ye Ah nearly did kill a guy once.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Ah was drunk at the time. Us boys round Tallyville was a pretty tough bunch then. We used ter work juss long enough to git some money to tear things up with. An’ then we used to play craps an’ drink whiskey. This happened just at coan-shuckin’ time. Hell, Ah don’t even know what it was about, but Ah got to quarrellin’ with a feller Ah’d been right smart friends with. Then he laid off an’ hit me in the jaw. Ah don’t know what Ah done next, but before Ah knowed it Ah had a hold of a shuck-in’ knife and was slashin’ at him with it. A knife like that’s a turruble thing to stab a man with. It took four of ‘em to hold me down an’ git it away from me. They didn’t keep me from givin’ him a good cut across the chest, though. Ah was juss crazy drunk at the time. An’ man, if Ah wasn’t a mess to go home, with half ma clothes pulled off and ma shirt torn. Ah juss fell in the ditch an’ slep’ there till daylight an’ got mud all through ma hair…. Ah don’t scarcely tech a drop now, though.”
“So you’re in a hurry to get overseas, Chris, like me,” said Andrews after a long pause.
“Ah’ll push that guy Anderson into the sea, if we both go over on the same boat,” said Chrisfield laughing; but he added after a pause: “It would have been hell if Ah’d killed that feller, though. Honest Ah wouldn’t a-wanted to do that.”
“That’s the job that pays, a violinist,” said somebody.
“No, it don’t,” came a melancholy drawling voice from a lanky man who sat doubled up with his long face in his hands and his elbows resting on his knees. “Just brings a living wage… a living wage.”
Several men were grouped at the end of the barracks. From them the long row of cots, with here and there a man asleep or a man hastily undressing, stretched, lighted by occasional feeble electric-light bulbs, to the sergeant’s little table beside the door.
“You’re gettin’ a dis-charge, aren’t you?” asked a man with a brogue, and the red face of a jovial gorilla, that signified the bartender.
“Yes, Flannagan, I am,” said the lanky man dolefully.
“Ain’t he got hard luck?” came a voice from the crowd.
“Yes, I have got hard luck, Buddy,” said the lanky man, looking at the faces about him out of sunken eyes. “I ought to be getting forty dollars a week and here I am getting seven and in the army besides.”
“I meant that you were gettin’ out of this goddam army.”
“The army, the army, the democratic army,” chanted someone under his breath.
“But, begorry, I want to go overseas and ‘ave a look at the ‘uns,” said Flannagan, who managed with strange skill to combine a cockney whine with his Irish brogue.
“Overseas?” took up the lanky man. “If I could have gone an’ studied overseas, I’d be making as much as Kubelik. I had the makings of a good player in me.”
“Why don’t you go?” asked Andrews, who stood on the outskirts with Fuselli and Chris.
“Look at me… t. b.,” said the lanky man.
“Well, they can’t get me over there soon enough,” said Flannagan.
“Must be funny not bein’ able to understand what folks say. They say ‘we’ over there when they mean ‘yes,’ a guy told me.”
“Ye can make signs to them, can’t ye?” said Flannagan “an’ they can understand an Irishman anywhere. But ye won’t ‘ave to talk to the ‘uns. Begorry I’ll set up in business when I get there, what d’ye think of that?”
“How’d that do? I’ll start an Irish House in Berlin, I will, and there’ll be O’Casey and O’Ryan and O’Reilly and O’Flarrety, and begod the King of England himself’ll come an’ set the goddam Kaiser up to a drink.”
“The Kaiser’ll be strung up on a telephone pole by that time; ye needn’t worry, Flannagan.”
“They ought to torture him to death, like they do niggers when they lynch ‘em down south.”
A bugle sounded far away outside on the parade ground. Everyone slunk away silently to his cot.
John Andrews arranged himself carefully in his blankets, promising himself a quiet time of thought before going to sleep. He needed to be awake and think at night this way, so that he might not lose entirely the thread of his own life, of the life he would take up again some day if he lived through it. He brushed away the thought of death. It was uninteresting. He didn’t care anyway. But some day he would want to play the piano again, to write music. He must not let himself sink too deeply into the helpless mentality of the soldier. He must keep his will power.
No, but that was not what he had wanted to think about. He was so bored with himself. At any cost he must forget himself. Ever since his first year at college he seemed to have done nothing but think about himself, talk about himself. At least at the bottom, in the utterest degradation of slavery, he could find forgetfulness and start rebuilding the fabric of his life, out of real things this time, out of work and comradeship and scorn. Scorn—that was the quality he needed. It was such a raw, fantastic world he had suddenly fallen into. His life before this week seemed a dream read in a novel, a picture he had seen in a shop window—it was so different. Could it have been in the same world at all? He must have died without knowing it and been born again into a new, futile hell.
When he had been a child he had lived in a dilapidated mansion that stood among old oaks and chestnuts, beside a road where buggies and oxcarts passed rarely to disturb the sandy ruts that lay in the mottled shade. He had had so many dreams; lying under the crepe-myrtle bush at the end of the overgrown garden he had passed the long Virginia afternoons, thinking, while the dryflies whizzed sleepily in the sunlight, of the world he would live in when he grew up. He had planned so many lives for himself: a general, like Caesar, he was to conquer the world and die murdered in a great marble hall; a wandering minstrel, he would go through all countries singing and have intricate endless adventures; a great musician, he would sit at the piano playing, like Chopin in the engraving, while beautiful women wept and men with long, curly hair hid their faces in their hands. It was only slavery that he had not foreseen. His race had dominated for too many centuries for that. And yet the world was made of various slaveries.
John Andrews lay on his back on his cot while everyone about him slept and snored in the dark barracks. A certain terror held him. In a week the great structure of his romantic world, so full of many colors and harmonies, that had survived school and college and the buffeting of making a living in New York, had fallen in dust about him. He was utterly in the void. “How silly,” he thought; “this is the world as it has appeared to the majority of men, this is just the lower half of the pyramid.”
He thought of his friends, of Fuselli and Chrisfield and that funny little man Eisenstein. They seemed at home in this army life. They did not seem appalled by the loss of their liberty. But they had never lived in the glittering other world. Yet he could not feel the scorn of them he wanted to feel. He thought of them singing under the direction of the “Y” man:
“Hail, Hail, the gang’s all here;
We’re going to get the Kaiser,
We’re going to get the Kaiser,
We’re going to get the Kaiser,
He thought of himself and Chrisfield picking up cigarette butts and the tramp, tramp, tramp of feet on the drill field. Where was the connection? Was this all futile madness? They’d come from such various worlds, all these men sleeping about him, to be united in this. And what did they think of it, all these sleepers? Had they too not had dreams when they were boys? Or had the generations prepared them only for this?
He thought of himself lying under the crepe-myrtle bush through the hot, droning afternoon, watching the pale magenta flowers flutter down into the dry grass, and felt, again, wrapped in his warm blankets among all these sleepers, the straining of limbs burning with desire to rush untrammelled through some new keen air. Suddenly darkness overspread his mind.
He woke with a start. The bugle was blowing outside.
“All right, look lively!” the sergeant was shouting. Another day.
The stars were very bright when Fuselli, eyes stinging with sleep, stumbled out of the barracks. They trembled like bits of brilliant jelly in the black velvet of the sky, just as something inside him trembled with excitement.
“Anybody know where the electricity turns on?” asked the sergeant in a good-humored voice. “Here it is.” The light over the door of the barracks snapped on, revealing a rotund cheerful man with a little yellow mustache and an unlit cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth. Grouped about him, in overcoats and caps, the men of the company rested their packs against their knees.
“All right; line up, men.”
Eyes looked curiously at Fuselli as he lined up with the rest. He had been transferred into the company the night before.
“Attenshun,” shouted the sergeant. Then he wrinkled up his eyes and grinned hard at the slip of paper he had in his hand, while the men of his company watched him affectionately.
“Answer ‘Here’ when your name is called. Allan, B.C.”
“Yo!” came a shrill voice from the end of the line.
Meanwhile outside the other barracks other companies could be heard calling the roll. Somewhere from the end of the street came a cheer.
“Well, I guess I can tell you now, fellers,” said the sergeant with his air of quiet omniscience, when he had called the last name. “We’re going overseas.”
“Shut up, you don’t want the Huns to hear us, do you?”
The company laughed, and there was a broad grin on the sergeant’s round face.
“Seem to have a pretty decent top-kicker,” whispered Fuselli to the man next to him.
“You bet yer, kid, he’s a peach,” said the other man in a voice full of devotion. “This is some company, I can tell you that.”
“You bet it is,” said the next man along. “The corporal’s in the Red Sox outfield.”
The lieutenant appeared suddenly in the area of light in front of the barracks. He was a pink-faced boy. His trench coat, a little too large, was very new and stuck out stiffly from his legs.
“Everything all right, sergeant? Everything all right?” he asked several times, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“All ready for entrainment, sir,” said the sergeant heartily.
“Very good, I’ll let you know the order of march in a minute.”
Fuselli’s ears pounded with strange excitement. These phrases, “entrainment,” “order of march,” had a businesslike sound. He suddenly started to wonder how it would feel to be under fire. Memories of movies flickered in his mind.
“Gawd, ain’t I glad to git out o’ this hell-hole,” he said to the man next him.
“The next one may be more of a hell-hole yet, buddy,” said the sergeant striding up and down with his important confident walk.
“He’s some sergeant, our sergeant is,” said the man next to Fuselli. “He’s got brains in his head, that boy has.”
“All right, break ranks,” said the sergeant, “but if anybody moves away from this barracks, I’ll put him in K. P. Till—till he’ll be able to peel spuds in his sleep.”
The company laughed again. Fuselli noticed with displeasure that the tall man with the shrill voice whose name had been called first on the roll did not laugh but spat disgustedly out of the corner of his mouth.
“Well, there are bad eggs in every good bunch,” thought Fuselli.
It gradually grew grey with dawn. Fuselli’s legs were tired from standing so long. Outside all the barracks, as far as he could see up the street, men stood in ragged lines waiting.
The sun rose hot on a cloudless day. A few sparrows twittered about the tin roof of the barracks.
“Hell, we’re not goin’ this day.”
“Why?” asked somebody savagely.
“Troops always leaves at night.”
“The hell they do!”
“Here comes Sarge.”
Everybody craned their necks in the direction pointed out.
The sergeant strolled up with a mysterious smile on his face.
“Put away your overcoats and get out your mess kits.”
Mess kits clattered and gleamed in the slanting rays of the sun. They marched to the mess hall and back again, lined up again with packs and waited some more.
Everybody began to get tired and peevish. Fuselli wondered where his old friends of the other company were. They were good kids too, Chris and that educated fellow, Andrews. Tough luck they couldn’t have come along.
The sun rose higher. Men sneaked into the barracks one by one and lay down on the bare cots.
“What you want to bet we won’t leave this camp for a week yet?” asked someone.
At noon they lined up for mess again, ate dismally and hurriedly. As Fuselli was leaving the mess hall tapping a tattoo on his kit with two dirty finger nails, the corporal spoke to him in a low voice.
“Be sure to wash yer kit, buddy. We may have pack inspection.”
The corporal was a slim yellow-faced man with a wrinkled skin, though he was still young, and an arrow-shaped mouth that opened and shut like the paper mouths children make.
“All right, corporal,” Fuselli answered cheerfully. He wanted to make a good impression. “Fellers’ll be sayin’ ‘All right, corporal,’ to me soon,” he thought. An idea that he repelled came into his mind. The corporal didn’t look strong. He wouldn’t last long overseas. And he pictured Mabe writing Corporal Dan Fuselli, O.A.R.D.5.
At the end of the afternoon, the lieutenant appeared suddenly, his face flushed, his trench coat stiffer than ever.
“All right, sergeant; line up your men,” he said in a breathless voice.
All down the camp street companies were forming. One by one they marched out in columns of fours and halted with their packs on. The day was getting amber with sunset. Retreat sounded.
Fuselli’s mind had suddenly become very active. The notes of the bugle and of the band playing “The Star Spangled Banner” sifted into his consciousness through a dream of what it would be like over there. He was in a place like the Exposition ground, full of old men and women in peasant costume, like in the song, “When It’s Apple Blossom Time in Normandy.” Men in spiked helmets who looked like firemen kept charging through, like the Ku-Klux Klan in the movies, jumping from their horses and setting fire to buildings with strange outlandish gestures, spitting babies on their long swords. Those were the Huns. Then there were flags blowing very hard in the wind, and the sound of a band. The Yanks were coming. Everything was lost in a scene from a movie in which khaki-clad regiments marched fast, fast across the scene. The memory of the shouting that always accompanied it drowned out the picture. “The guns must make a racket, though,” he added as an after-thought.
The long street of the camp was full of the tramping of feet. They were off. As they passed through the gate Fuselli caught a glimpse of Chris standing with his arm about Andrews’s shoulders. They both waved. Fuselli grinned and expanded his chest. They were just rookies still. He was going overseas.
The weight of the pack tugged at his shoulders and made his feet heavy as if they were charged with lead. The sweat ran down his close-clipped head under the overseas cap and streamed into his eyes and down the sides of his nose. Through the tramp of feet he heard confusedly cheering from the sidewalk. In front of him the backs of heads and the swaying packs got smaller, rank by rank up the street. Above them flags dangled from windows, flags leisurely swaying in the twilight. But the weight of the pack, as the column marched under arc lights glaring through the afterglow, inevitably forced his head to droop forward. The soles of boots and legs wrapped in puttees and the bottom strap of the pack of the man ahead of him were all he could see. The pack seemed heavy enough to push him through the asphalt pavement. And all about him was the faint jingle of equipment and the tramp of feet. Every part of him was full of sweat. He could feel vaguely the steam of sweat that rose from the ranks of struggling bodies about him. But gradually he forgot everything but the pack tugging at his shoulders, weighing down his thighs and ankles and feet, and the monotonous rhythm of his feet striking the pavement and of the other feet, in front of him, behind him, beside him, crunching, crunching.
The train smelt of new uniforms on which the sweat had dried, and of the smoke of cheap cigarettes. Fuselli awoke with a start. He had been asleep with his head on Bill Grey’s shoulder. It was already broad daylight. The train was jolting slowly over cross-tracks in some dismal suburb, full of long soot-smeared warehouses and endless rows of freight cars, beyond which lay brown marshland and slate-grey stretches of water.
“God! that must be the Atlantic Ocean,” cried Fuselli in excitement.
“Ain’t yer never seen it before? That’s the Perth River,” said Bill Grey scornfully.
“No, I come from the Coast.”
They stuck their heads out of the window side by side so that their cheeks touched.
“Gee, there’s some skirts,” said Bill Grey. The train jolted to a stop. Two untidy red-haired girls were standing beside the track waving their hands.
“Give us a kiss,” cried Bill Grey.
“Sure,” said a girl,—“anythin’ fer one of our boys.”
She stood on tiptoe and Grey leaned far out of the window, just managing to reach the girl’s forehead.
Fuselli felt a flush of desire all over him.
“Hol’ onter my belt,” he said. “I’ll kiss her right.”
He leaned far out, and, throwing his arms around the girl’s pink gingham shoulders, lifted her off the ground and kissed her furiously on the lips.
“Lemme go, lemme go,” cried the girl. Men leaning out of the other windows of the car cheered and shouted.
Fuselli kissed her again and then dropped her.
“Ye’re too rough, damn ye,” said the girl angrily.
A man from one of the windows yelled, “I’ll go an’ tell mommer”; and everybody laughed. The train moved on. Fuselli looked about him proudly. The image of Mabe giving him the five-pound box of candy rose a moment in his mind.
“Ain’t no harm in havin’ a little fun. Don’t mean nothin’,” he said aloud.
“You just wait till we hit France. We’ll hit it up some with the Madimerzels, won’t we, kid?” said Bill Grey, slapping Fuselli on the knee.
You’re the only gugugu-girl that I adore;
And when the mo-moon shines
Over the cowshed,
I’ll be waiting at the ki-ki-ki-kitchen door.”
Everybody sang as the thumping of wheels over rails grew faster. Fuselli looked about contentedly at the company sprawling over their packs and equipment in the smoky car.
“It’s great to be a soldier,” he said to Bill Grey. “Ye kin do anything ye goddam please.”
“This,” said the corporal, as the company filed into barracks identical to those they had left two days before, “is an embarkation camp, but I’d like to know where the hell we embark at.” He twisted his face into a smile, and then shouted with lugubrious intonation: “Fall in for mess.”
It was pitch dark in that part of the camp. The electric lights had a sparse reddish glow. Fuselli kept straining his eyes, expecting to see a wharf and the masts of a ship at the end of every alley. The line filed into a dim mess hall, where a thin stew was splashed into the mess kits. Behind the counter of the kitchen the non-coms, the jovial first sergeant, and the businesslike sergeant who looked like a preacher, and the wrinkled-faced corporal who had been on the Red Sox outfield, could be seen eating steak. A faint odor of steak frying went through the mess hall and made the thin chilly stew utterly tasteless in comparison.
Fuselli looked enviously towards the kitchen and thought of the day when he would be a non-com too. “I got to get busy,” he said to himself earnestly. Overseas, under fire, he’d have a chance to show what he was worth; and he pictured himself heroically carrying a wounded captain back to a dressing tent, pursued by fierce-whiskered men with spiked helmets like firemen’s helmets.
The strumming of a guitar came strangely down the dark street of the camp.
“Some guy sure can play,” said Bill Grey who, with his hands in his pockets, slouched along beside Fuselli.
They looked in the door of one of the barracks. A lot of soldiers were sitting in a ring round two tall negroes whose black faces and chests glistened like jet in the faint light.
“Come on, Charley, give us another,” said someone.
“Do Ah git it now, or mus’ Ah hesit-ate?”
One negro began chanting while the other strummed carelessly on the guitar.
“No, give us the ‘Titanic.’”
The guitar strummed in a crooning rag-time for a moment. The negro’s voice broke into it suddenly, pitched high.
“Dis is de song ob de Titanic, Sailin’ on de sea.”
The guitar strummed on. There had been a tension in the negro’s voice that had made everyone stop talking. The soldiers looked at him curiously.
“How de Titanic ran in dat cole iceberg,
How de Titanic ran in dat cole iceberg
Sailin’ on de sea.”
His voice was confidential and soft, and the guitar strummed to the same sobbing rag-time. Verse after verse the voice grew louder and the strumming faster.
“De Titanic’s sinkin’ in de deep blue,
Sinkin’ in de deep blue, deep blue,
Sinkin’ in de sea.
O de women an’ de chilen a-floatin’ in de sea,
O de women an’ de chilen a-floatin’ in de sea,
Roun’ dat cole iceberg,
Sung ‘Nearer, my gawd, to Thee,’
Sung ‘Nearer, my gawd, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.’”
The guitar was strumming the hymn-tune. The negro was singing with every cord in his throat taut, almost sobbing.
A man next to Fuselli took careful aim and spat into the box of sawdust in the middle of the ring of motionless soldiers.
The guitar played the rag-time again, fast, almost mockingly. The negro sang in low confidential tones.
“O de women an’ de chilen dey sank in de sea.
O de women an’ de chilen dey sank in de sea,
Roun’ dat cole iceberg.”
Before he had finished a bugle blew in the distance. Everybody scattered.
Fuselli and Bill Grey went silently back to their barracks.
“It must be an awful thing to drown in the sea,” said Grey as he rolled himself in his blankets. “If one of those bastard U-boats…”
“I don’t give a damn,” said Fuselli boisterously; but as he lay staring into the darkness, cold terror stiffened him suddenly. He thought for a moment of deserting, pretending he was sick, anything to keep from going on the transport.
“O de women an’ de chilen dey sank in de sea,
Roun” dat cole iceberg.”
He could feel himself going down through icy water. “It’s a hell of a thing to send a guy over there to drown,” he said to himself, and he thought of the hilly streets of San Francisco, and the glow of the sunset over the harbor and ships coming in through the Golden Gate. His mind went gradually blank and he went to sleep.
The column was like some curious khaki-colored carpet, hiding the road as far as you could see. In Fuselli’s company the men were shifting their weight from one foot to the other, muttering, “What the hell a’ they waiting for now?” Bill Grey, next to Fuselli in the ranks, stood bent double so as to take the weight of his pack off his shoulders. They were at a cross-roads on fairly high ground so that they could see the long sheds and barracks of the camp stretching away in every direction, in rows and rows, broken now and then by a grey drill field. In front of them the column stretched to the last bend in the road, where it disappeared on a hill among mustard-yellow suburban houses.
Fuselli was excited. He kept thinking of the night before, when he had helped the sergeant distribute emergency rations, and had carried about piles of boxes of hard bread, counting them carefully without a mistake. He felt full of desire to do things, to show what he was good for. “Gee,” he said to himself, “this war’s a lucky thing for me. I might have been in the R.C. Vicker Company’s store for five years an’ never got a raise, an’ here in the army I got a chance to do almost anything.”
Far ahead down the road the column was beginning to move. Voices shouting orders beat crisply on the morning air. Fuselli’s heart was thumping. He felt proud of himself and of the company—the damn best company in the whole outfit. The company ahead was moving, it was their turn now.
They were lost in the monotonous tramp of feet. Dust rose from the road, along which like a drab brown worm crawled the column.
A sickening unfamiliar smell choked their nostrils.
“What are they taking us down here for?”
“Damned if I know.”
They were filing down ladders into the terrifying pit which the hold of the ship seemed to them. Every man had a blue card in his hand with a number on it. In a dim place like an empty warehouse they stopped. The sergeant shouted out:
“I guess this is our diggings. We’ll have to make the best of it.” Then he disappeared.
Fuselli looked about him. He was sitting in one of the lowest of three tiers of bunks roughly built of new pine boards. Electric lights placed here and there gave a faint reddish tone to the gloom, except at the ladders, where high-power lamps made a white glare. The place was full of tramping of feet and the sound of packs being thrown on bunks as endless files of soldiers poured in down every ladder. Somewhere down the alley an officer with a shrill voice was shouting to his men: “Speed it up there; speed it up there.” Fuselli sat on his bunk looking at the terrifying confusion all about, feeling bewildered and humiliated. For how many days would they be in that dark pit? He suddenly felt angry. They had no right to treat a feller like that. He was a man, not a bale of hay to be bundled about as anybody liked.
“An’ if we’re torpedoed a fat chance we’ll have down here,” he said aloud.
“They got sentries posted to keep us from goin up on deck,” said someone.
“God damn them. They treat you like you was a steer being taken over for meat.”
“Well, you’re not a damn sight more. Meat for the guns.”
A little man lying in one of the upper bunks had spoken suddenly, contracting his sallow face into a curious spasm, as if the words had burst from him in spite of an effort to keep them in.
Everybody looked up at him angrily.
“That goddam kike Eisenstein,” muttered someone.
“Say, tie that bull outside,” shouted Bill Grey good-naturedly.
“Fools,” muttered Eisenstein, turning over and burying his face in his hands.
“Gee, I wonder what it is makes it smell so funny down here,” said Fuselli.
Fuselli lay flat on deck resting his head on his crossed arms. When he looked straight up he could see a lead-colored mast sweep back and forth across the sky full of clouds of light grey and silver and dark purplish-grey showing yellowish at the edges. When he tilted his head a little to one side he could see Bill Grey’s heavy colorless face and the dark bristles of his unshaven chin and his mouth a little twisted to the left, from which a cigarette dangled unlighted. Beyond were heads and bodies huddled together in a mass of khaki overcoats and life preservers. And when the roll tipped the deck he had a view of moving green waves and of a steamer striped grey and white, and the horizon, a dark taut line, broken here and there by the tops of waves.
“O God, I feel sick,” said Bill Grey, taking the cigarette out of his mouth and looking at it revengefully.
“I’d be all right if everything didn’t stink so. An’ that mess hall. Nearly makes a guy puke to think of it.” Fuselli spoke in a whining voice, watching the top of the mast move like a pencil scrawling on paper, back and forth across the mottled clouds.
“You belly-achin’ again?” A brown moon-shaped face with thick black eyebrows and hair curling crisply about a forehead with many horizontal wrinkles rose from the deck on the other side of Fuselli.
“Get the hell out of here.”
“Feel sick, sonny?” came the deep voice again, and the dark eyebrows contracted in an expression of sympathy. “Funny, I’d have my sixshooter out if I was home and you told me to get the hell out, sonny.”
“Well, who wouldn’t be sore when they have to go on K.P.?” said Fuselli peevishly.
“I ain’t been down to mess in three days. A feller who lives on the plains like I do ought to take to the sea like a duck, but it don’t seem to suit me.”
“God, they’re a sick lookin’ bunch I have to sling the hash to,” said Fuselli more cheerfully. “I don’t know how they get that way. The fellers in our company ain’t that way. They look like they was askeered somebody was going to hit ‘em. Ever noticed that, Meadville?”
“Well, what d’ye expect of you guys who live in the city all your lives and don’t know the butt from the barrel of a gun an’ never straddled anything more like a horse than a broomstick. Ye’re juss made to be sheep. No wonder they have to herd you round like calves.” Meadville got to his feet and went unsteadily to the rail, keeping, as he threaded his way through the groups that covered the transport’s after deck, a little of his cowboy’s bow-legged stride.
“I know what it is that makes men’s eyes blink when they go down to that putrid mess,” came a nasal voice.
Fuselli turned round.
Eisenstein was sitting in the place Meadville had just left.
“You do, do you?”
“It’s part of the system. You’ve got to turn men into beasts before ye can get ‘em to act that way. Ever read Tolstoi?”
“No. Say, you want to be careful how you go talkin’ around the way you do.” Fuselli lowered his voice confidentially. “I heard of a feller bein’ shot at Camp Merritt for talkin’ around.”
“I don’t care…. I’m a desperate man,” said Eisenstein.
“Don’t ye feel sick? Gawd, I do…. Did you get rid o’ any of it, Meadville?”
“Why don’t they fight their ole war somewhere a man can get to on a horse?… Say that’s my seat.”
“The place was empty…. I sat down in it,” said Eisenstein, lowering his head sullenly.
“You kin have three winks to get out o’ my place,” said Meadville, squaring his broad shoulders.
“You are stronger than me,” said Eisenstein, moving off.
“God, it’s hell not to have a gun,” muttered Meadville as he settled himself on the deck again. “D’ye know, sonny, I nearly cried when I found I was going to be in this damn medical corps? I enlisted for the tanks. This is the first time in my life I haven’t had a gun. I even think I had one in my cradle.”
“That’s funny,” said Fuselli.
The sergeant appeared suddenly in the middle of the group, his face red.
“Say, fellers,” he said in a low voice, “go down an’ straighten out the bunks as fast as you goddam can. They’re having an inspection. It’s a hell of a note.”
They all filed down the gang planks into the foul-smelling hold, where there was no light but the invariable reddish glow of electric bulbs. They had hardly reached their bunks when someone called, “Attention!”
Three officers stalked by, their firm important tread a little disturbed by the rolling. Their heads were stuck forward and they peered from side to side among the bunks with the cruel, searching glance of hens looking for worms.
“Fuselli,” said the first sergeant, “bring up the record book to my stateroom; 213 on the lower deck.”
“All right, Sarge,” said Fuselli with alacrity. He admired the first sergeant and wished he could imitate his jovial, domineering manner.
It was the first time he had been in the upper part of the ship. It seemed a different world. The long corridors with red carpets, the white paint and the gilt mouldings on the partitions, the officers strolling about at their ease—it all made him think of the big liners he used to watch come in through the Golden Gate, the liners he was going to Europe on some day, when he got rich. Oh, if he could only get to be a sergeant first-class, all this comfort and magnificence would be his. He found the number and knocked on the door. Laughter and loud talking came from inside the stateroom.
“Wait a sec!” came an unfamiliar voice.
“Sergeant Olster here?”
“Oh, it’s one o’ my gang,” came the sergeant’s voice. “Let him in. He won’t peach on us.”
The door opened and he saw Sergeant Olster and two other young men sitting with their feet dangling over the red varnished boards that enclosed the bunks. They were talking gaily, and had glasses in their hands.
“Paris is some town, I can tell you,” one was saying. “They say the girls come up an’ put their arms round you right in the main street.”
“Here’s the records, sergeant,” said Fuselli stiffly in his best military manner.
“Oh thanks…. There’s nothing else I want,” said the sergeant, his voice more jovial than ever. “Don’t fall overboard like the guy in Company C.”
Fuselli laughed as he closed the door, growing serious suddenly on noticing that one of the young men wore in his shirt the gold bar of a second lieutenant.
“Gee,” he said to himself. “I ought to have saluted.”
He waited a moment outside the closed door of the stateroom, listening to the talk and the laughter, wishing he were one of that merry group talking about women in Paris. He began thinking. Sure he’d get private first-class as soon as they got overseas. Then in a couple of months he might be corporal. If they saw much service, he’d move along all right, once he got to be a non-com.
“Oh, I mustn’t get in wrong. Oh, I mustn’t get in wrong,” he kept saying to himself as he went down the ladder into the hold. But he forgot everything in the seasickness that came on again as he breathed in the fetid air.
The deck now slanted down in front of him, now rose so that he was walking up an incline. Dirty water slushed about from one side of the passage to the other with every lurch of the ship. When he reached the door the whistling howl of the wind through the hinges and cracks made Fuselli hesitate a long time with his hand on the knob. The moment he turned the knob the door flew open and he was in the full sweep of the wind. The deck was deserted. The wet ropes strung along it shivered dismally in the wind. Every other moment came the rattle of spray, that rose up in white fringy trees to windward and smashed against him like hail. Without closing the door he crept forward along the deck, clinging as hard as he could to the icy rope. Beyond the spray he could see huge marbled green waves rise in constant succession out of the mist. The roar of the wind in his ears confused him and terrified him. It seemed ages before he reached the door of the forward house that opened on a passage that smelt of drugs; and breathed out air, where men waited in a packed line, thrown one against the other by the lurching of the boat, to get into the dispensary. The roar of the wind came to them faintly, and only now and then the hollow thump of a wave against the bow.
“You sick?” a man asked Fuselli.
“Naw, I’m not sick; but Sarge sent me to get some stuff for some guys that’s too sick to move.”
“An awful lot o’ sickness on this boat.”
“Two fellers died this mornin’ in that there room,” said another man solemnly, pointing over his shoulder with a jerk of the thumb. “Ain’t buried ‘em yet. It’s too rough.”
“What’d they die of?” asked Fuselli eagerly.
“Menegitis,” broke in a man at the end of the line.
“Say, that’s awful catchin’ ain’t it?”
“It sure is.”
“Where does it hit yer?” asked Fuselli.
“Yer neck swells up, an’ then you juss go stiff all over,” came the man’s voice from the end of the line.
There was a silence. From the direction of the infirmary a man with a packet of medicines in his hand began making his way towards the door.
“Many guys in there?” asked Fuselli in a low voice as the man brushed past him.
When the door closed again the man beside Fuselli, who was tall and broad shouldered with heavy black eyebrows, burst out, as if he were saying something he’d been trying to keep from saying for a long while:
“It won’t be right if that sickness gets me; indeed it won’t…. I’ve got a girl waitin’ for me at home. It’s two years since I ain’t touched a woman all on account of her. It ain’t natural for a fellow to go so long as that.
“Why didn’t you marry her before you left?” somebody asked mockingly.
“Said she didn’t want to be no war bride, that she could wait for me better if I didn’t.”
Several men laughed.
“It wouldn’t be right if I took sick an’ died of this sickness, after keepin’ myself clean on account of that girl…. It wouldn’t be right,” the man muttered again to Fuselli.
Fuselli was picturing himself lying in his bunk with a swollen neck, while his arms and legs stiffened, stiffened.
A red-faced man half way up the passage started speaking:
“When I thinks to myself how much the folks need me home, it makes me feel sort o’ confident-like, I dunno why. I juss can’t cash in my checks, that’s all.” He laughed jovially.
No one joined in the laugh.
“Is it awfully catchin’?” asked Fuselli of the man next him.
“Most catchin’ thing there is,” he answered solemnly. “The worst of it is,” another man was muttering in a shrill hysterical voice, “bein’ thrown over to the sharks. Gee, they ain’t got a right to do that, even if it is war time, they ain’t got a right to treat a Christian like he was a dead dawg.”
“They got a right to do anythin’ they goddam please, buddy. Who’s goin’ to stop ‘em I’d like to know,” cried the red-faced man.
“If he was an awficer, they wouldn’t throw him over like that,” came the shrill hysterical voice again.
“Cut that,” said someone else, “no use gettin’ in wrong juss for the sake of talkin’.”
“But ain’t it dangerous, waitin’ round up here so near where those fellers are with that sickness,” whispered Fuselli to the man next him.
“Reckon it is, buddy,” came the other man’s voice dully.
Fuselli started making his way toward the door.
“Lemme out, fellers, I’ve got to puke,” he said. “Shoot,” he was thinking, “I’ll tell ‘em the place was closed; they’ll never come to look.”
As he opened the door he thought of himself crawling back to his bunk and feeling his neck swell and his hands burn with fever and his arms and legs stiffen until everything would be effaced in the blackness of death. But the roar of the wind and the lash of the spray as he staggered back along the deck drowned all other thought.
Fuselli and another man carried the dripping garbage-can up the ladder that led up from the mess hall. It smelt of rancid grease and coffee grounds and greasy juice trickled over their fingers as they struggled with it. At last they burst out on to the deck where a free wind blew out of the black night. They staggered unsteadily to the rail and emptied the pail into the darkness. The splash was lost in the sound of the waves and of churned water fleeing along the sides. Fuselli leaned over the rail and looked down at the faint phosphorescence that was the only light in the whole black gulf. He had never seen such darkness before. He clutched hold of the rail with both hands, feeling lost and terrified in the blackness, in the roaring of the wind in his ears and the sound of churned water fleeing astern. The alternative was the stench of below decks.
“I’ll bring down the rosie, don’t you bother,” he said to the other man, kicking the can that gave out a ringing sound as he spoke.
He strained his eyes to make out something. The darkness seemed to press in upon his eyeballs, blinding him. Suddenly he noticed voices near him. Two men were talking.
“I ain’t never seen the sea before this, I didn’t know it was like this.”
“We’re in the zone, now.”
“That means we may go down any minute.”
“Christ, how black it is…. It’ld be awful to drown in the dark like this.”
“It’ld be over soon.”
“Say, Fred, have you ever been so skeered that…?”
“D’you feel a-skeert?”
“Feel my hand, Fred…. No…. There it is. God, it’s so hellish black you can’t see yer own hand.”
“It’s cold. Why are you shiverin’ so? God, I wish I had a drink.”
“I ain’t never seen the sea before…I didn’t know…”
Fuselli heard distinctly the man’s teeth chattering in the darkness.
“God, pull yerself together, kid. You can’t be skeered like this.”
There was a long pause. Fuselli heard nothing but the churned water speeding along the ship’s side and the wind roaring in his ears.
“I ain’t never seen the sea before this time, Fred, an’ it sort o’ gits my goat, all this sickness an’ all…. They dropped three of ‘em overboard yesterday.”
“Hell, kid, don’t think of it.”
“Say, Fred, if I… if I… if you’re saved, Fred, an’ not me, you’ll write to my folks, won’t you?”
“Indeed I will. But I reckon you an’ me’ll both go down together.”
“Don’t say that. An’ you won’t forget to write that girl I gave you the address of?”
“You’ll do the same for me.”
“Oh, no, Fred, I’ll never see land…. Oh, it’s no use. An’ I feel so well an’ husky…. I don’t want to die. I can’t die like this.”
“If it only wasn’t so goddam black.”