THE ENORMOUS ROOM
E. E. CUMMINGS
* * * * *
I. I BEGIN A PILGRIMAGE
II. EN ROUTE
III. A PILGRIM'S PROGRESS
IV. LE NOUVEAU
V. A GROUP OF PORTRAITS
VII. AN APPROACH TO THE DELECTABLE MOUNTAINS
VIII. THE WANDERER
XI. JEAN LE NEGRE
XII. THREE WISE MEN
XIII. I SAY GOOD-BYE TO LA MISERE
* * * * *
"FOR THIS MY SON WAS DEAD, AND IS ALIVE AGAIN; HE WAS LOST; AND IS FOUND."
He was lost by the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps.
He was officially dead as a result of official misinformation.
He was entombed by the French Government.
It took the better part of three months to find him and bring him back to life—with the help of powerful and willing friends on both sides of the Atlantic. The following documents tell the story:
104 Irving Street, Cambridge, December 8, 1917.
President Woodrow Wilson, White House, Washington, D. C.
It seems criminal to ask for a single moment of your time. But I am strongly advised that it would be more criminal to delay any longer calling to your attention a crime against American citizenship in which the French Government has persisted for many weeks—in spite of constant appeals made to the American Minister at Paris; and in spite of subsequent action taken by the State Department at Washington, on the initiative of my friend, Hon. ——.
The victims are two American ambulance drivers, Edward Estlin Cummings of Cambridge, Mass., and W—— S—— B——....
More than two months ago these young men were arrested, subjected to many indignities, dragged across France like criminals, and closely confined in a Concentration Camp at La Ferte Mace; where, according to latest advices they still remain—awaiting the final action of the Minister of the Interior upon the findings of a Commission which passed upon their cases as long ago as October 17.
Against Cummings both private and official advices from Paris state that there is no charge whatever. He has been subjected to this outrageous treatment solely because of his intimate friendship with young B——, whose sole crime is—so far as can be learned—that certain letters to friends in America were misinterpreted by an over-zealous French censor.
It only adds to the indignity and irony of the situation to say that young Cummings is an enthusiastic lover of France and so loyal to the friends he has made among the French soldiers, that even while suffering in health from his unjust confinement, he excuses the ingratitude of the country he has risked his life to serve by calling attention to the atmosphere of intense suspicion and distrust that has naturally resulted from the painful experience which France has had with foreign emissaries.
Be assured, Mr. President, that I have waited long—it seems like ages—and have exhausted all other available help before venturing to trouble you.
1. After many weeks of vain effort to secure effective action by the American Ambassador at Paris, Richard Norton of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps to which the boys belonged, was completely discouraged, and advised me to seek help here.
2. The efforts of the State Department at Washington resulted as follows:
i. A cable from Paris saying that there was no charge against Cummings and intimating that he would speedily be released.
ii. A little later a second cable advising that Edward Estlin Cummings had sailed on the Antilles and was reported lost.
iii. A week later a third cable correcting this cruel error and saying the Embassy was renewing efforts to locate Cummings—apparently still ignorant even of the place of his confinement.
After such painful and baffling experiences, I turn to you—burdened though I know you to be, in this world crisis, with the weightiest task ever laid upon any man.
But I have another reason for asking this favor. I do not speak for my son alone; or for him and his friend alone. My son has a mother—as brave and patriotic as any mother who ever dedicated an only son to a great cause. The mothers of our boys in France have rights as well as the boys themselves. My boy's mother had a right to be protected from the weeks of horrible anxiety and suspense caused by the inexplicable arrest and imprisonment of her son. My boy's mother had a right to be spared the supreme agony caused by a blundering cable from Paris saying that he had been drowned by a submarine. (An error which Mr. Norton subsequently cabled that he had discovered six weeks before.) My boy's mother and all American mothers have a right to be protected against all needless anxiety and sorrow.
Pardon me, Mr. President, but if I were President and your son were suffering such prolonged injustice at the hands of France; and your son's mother had been needlessly kept in Hell as many weeks as my boy's mother has—I would do something to make American citizenship as sacred in the eyes of Frenchmen as Roman citizenship was in the eyes of the ancient world. Then it was enough to ask the question, "Is it lawful to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?" Now, in France, it seems lawful to treat like a condemned criminal a man that is an American, uncondemned and admittedly innocent!
Very respectfully, EDWARD CUMMINGS
This letter was received at the White House. Whether it was received with sympathy or with silent disapproval is still a mystery. A Washington official, a friend in need and a friend indeed in these trying experiences, took the precaution to have it delivered by messenger. Otherwise, fear that it had been "lost in the mail" would have added another twinge of uncertainty to the prolonged and exquisite tortures inflicted upon parents by alternations of misinformation and official silence. Doubtless the official stethoscope was on the heart of the world just then; and perhaps it was too much to expect that even a post-card would be wasted on private heart-aches.
In any event this letter told where to look for the missing boys—something the French government either could not or would not disclose, in spite of constant pressure by the American Embassy at Paris and constant efforts by my friend Richard Norton, who was head of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance organization from which they had been abducted.
Release soon followed, as narrated in the following letter to Major —— of the staff of the Judge Advocate General in Paris.
February 20, 1921.
My dear ——
Your letter of January 30th, which I have been waiting for with great interest ever since I received your cable, arrived this morning. My son arrived in New York on January 1st. He was in bad shape physically as a result of his imprisonment: very much under weight, suffering from a bad skin infection which he had acquired at the concentration camp. However, in view of the extraordinary facilities which the detention camp offered for acquiring dangerous diseases, he is certainly to be congratulated on having escaped with one of the least harmful. The medical treatment at the camp was quite in keeping with the general standards of sanitation there; with the result that it was not until he began to receive competent surgical treatment after his release and on board ship that there was much chance of improvement. A month of competent medical treatment here seems to have got rid of this painful reminder of official hospitality. He is, at present, visiting friends in New York. If he were here, I am sure he would join with me and with his mother in thanking you for the interest you have taken and the efforts you have made.
W—— S—— B—— is, I am happy to say, expected in New York this week by the S. S. Niagara. News of his release and subsequently of his departure came by cable. What you say about the nervous strain under which he was living, as an explanation of the letters to which the authorities objected, is entirely borne out by first-hand information. The kind of badgering which the youth received was enough to upset a less sensitive temperament. It speaks volumes for the character of his environment that such treatment aroused the resentment of only one of his companions, and that even this manifestation of normal human sympathy was regarded as "suspicious." If you are right in characterizing B——'s condition as more or less hysterical, what shall we say of the conditions which made possible the treatment which he and his friend received? I am glad B—— wrote the very sensible and manly letter to the Embassy, which you mention. After I have had an opportunity to converse with him, I shall be in better position to reach a conclusion in regard to certain matters about which I will not now express an opinion.
I would only add that I do not in the least share your complacency in regard to the treatment which my son received. The very fact that, as you say, no charges were made and that he was detained on suspicion for many weeks after the Commission passed on his case and reported to the Minister of the Interior that he ought to be released, leads me to a conclusion exactly opposite to that which you express. It seems to me impossible to believe that any well-ordered government would fail to acknowledge such action to have been unreasonable. Moreover, "detention on suspicion" was a small part of what actually took place. To take a single illustration, you will recall that after many weeks' persistent effort to secure information, the Embassy was still kept so much in the dark about the facts, that it cabled the report that my son had embarked on The Antilles and was reported lost. And when convinced of that error, the Embassy cabled that it was renewing efforts to locate my son. Up to that moment, it would appear that the authorities had not even condescended to tell the United States Embassy where this innocent American citizen was confined; so that a mistaken report of his death was regarded as an adequate explanation of his disappearance. If I had accepted this report and taken no further action, it is by no means certain that he would not be dead by this time.
I am free to say, that in my opinion no self-respecting government could allow one of its own citizens, against whom there has been no accusation brought, to be subjected to such prolonged indignities and injuries by a friendly government without vigorous remonstrance. I regard it as a patriotic duty, as well as a matter of personal self-respect, to do what I can to see that such remonstrance is made. I still think too highly both of my own government and of the government of France to believe that such an untoward incident will fail to receive the serious attention it deserves. If I am wrong, and American citizens must expect to suffer such indignities and injuries at the hands of other governments without any effort at remonstrance and redress by their own government, I believe the public ought to know the humiliating truth. It will make interesting reading. It remains for my son to determine what action he will take.
I am glad to know your son is returning. I am looking forward with great pleasure to conversing with him.
I cannot adequately express my gratitude to you and to other friends for the sympathy and assistance I have received. If any expenses have been incurred on my behalf or on behalf of my son, I beg you to give me the pleasure of reimbursing you. At best, I must always remain your debtor.
With best wishes,
I yield to no one in enthusiasm for the cause of France. Her cause was our cause and the cause of civilization; and the tragedy is that it took us so long to find it out. I would gladly have risked my life for her, as my son risked his and would have risked it again had not the departure of his regiment overseas been stopped by the armistice.
France was beset with enemies within as well as without. Some of the "suspects" were members of her official household. Her Minister of Interior was thrown into prison. She was distracted with fear. Her existence was at stake. Under such circumstances excesses were sure to be committed. But it is precisely at such times that American citizens most need and are most entitled to the protection of their own government.
* * * * *
THE ENORMOUS ROOM
I BEGIN A PILGRIMAGE
In October, 1917, we had succeeded, my friend B. and I, in dispensing with almost three of our six months' engagement as Voluntary Drivers, Sanitary Section 21, Ambulance Norton Harjes, American Red Cross, and at the moment which subsequent experience served to capitalize, had just finished the unlovely job of cleaning and greasing (nettoyer is the proper word) the own private flivver of the chief of section, a gentleman by the convenient name of Mr. A. To borrow a characteristic-cadence from Our Great President: the lively satisfaction which we might be suspected of having derived from the accomplishment of a task so important in the saving of civilization from the clutches of Prussian tyranny was in some degree inhibited, unhappily, by a complete absence of cordial relations between the man whom fate had placed over us and ourselves. Or, to use the vulgar American idiom, B. and I and Mr. A. didn't get on well. We were in fundamental disagreement as to the attitude which we, Americans, should uphold toward the poilus in whose behalf we had volunteered assistance, Mr. A. maintaining "you boys want to keep away from those dirty Frenchmen" and "we're here to show those bastards how they do things in America," to which we answered by seizing every opportunity for fraternization. Inasmuch as eight "dirty Frenchmen" were attached to the section in various capacities (cook, provisioner, chauffeur, mechanician, etc.) and the section itself was affiliated with a branch of the French army, fraternization was easy. Now when he saw that we had not the slightest intention of adopting his ideals, Mr. A. (together with the sous-lieutenant who acted as his translator—for the chief's knowledge of the French language, obtained during several years' heroic service, consisted for the most part in "Sar var," "Sar marche," and "Deet donk moan vieux") confined his efforts to denying us the privilege of acting as drivers, on the ground that our personal appearance was a disgrace to the section. In this, I am bound to say, Mr. A. was but sustaining the tradition conceived originally by his predecessor, a Mr. P., a Harvard man, who until his departure from Vingt-et-Un succeeded in making life absolutely miserable for B. and myself. Before leaving this painful subject I beg to state that, at least as far as I was concerned, the tradition had a firm foundation in my own predisposition for uncouthness plus what Le Matin (if we remember correctly) cleverly nicknamed La Boue Heroique.
Having accomplished the nettoyage (at which we were by this time adepts, thanks to Mr. A.'s habit of detailing us to wash any car which its driver and aide might consider too dirty a task for their own hands) we proceeded in search of a little water for personal use. B. speedily finished his ablutions. I was strolling carelessly and solo from the cook-wagon toward one of the two tents—which protestingly housed some forty huddling Americans by night—holding in my hand an historic morceau de chocolat, when a spick, not to say span, gentleman in a suspiciously quiet French uniform allowed himself to be driven up to the bureau, by two neat soldiers with tin derbies, in a Renault whose painful cleanliness shamed my recent efforts. This must be a general at least, I thought, regretting the extremely undress character of my uniform, which uniform consisted of overalls and a cigarette.
Having furtively watched the gentleman alight and receive a ceremonious welcome from the chief and the aforesaid French lieutenant who accompanied the section for translatory reasons, I hastily betook myself to one of the tents, where I found B. engaged in dragging all his belongings into a central pile of frightening proportions. He was surrounded by a group of fellow-heroes who hailed my coming with considerable enthusiasm. "Your bunky's leaving" said somebody. "Going to Paris" volunteered a man who had been trying for three months to get there. "Prison you mean" remarked a confirmed optimist whost disposition had felt the effects of French climate.
Albeit confused by the eloquence of B.'s unalterable silence, I immediately associated his present predicament with the advent of the mysterious stranger, and forthwith dashed forth, bent on demanding from one of the tin-derbies the high identity and sacred mission of this personage. I knew that with the exception of ourselves everyone in the section had been given his seven days' leave—even two men who had arrived later than we and whose turn should, consequently, have come after ours. I also knew that at the headquarters of the Ambulance, 7 rue Francois Premier, was Monsieur Norton, the supreme head of the Norton Harjes fraternity, who had known my father in other days. Putting two and two together I decided that this potentate had sent an emissary to Mr. A. to demand an explanation of the various and sundry insults and indignities to which I and my friend had been subjected, and more particularly to secure our long-delayed permission. Accordingly I was in high spirits as I rushed toward the bureau.
I didn't have to go far. The mysterious one, in conversation with monsieur le sous-lieutenant, met me half-way. I caught the words: "And Cummings" (the first and last time that my name was correctly pronounced by a Frenchman), "where is he?"
"Present," I said, giving a salute to which neither of them paid the slightest attention.
"Ah yes" impenetrably remarked the mysterious one in positively sanitary English. "You shall put all your baggage in the car, at once"—then, to tin-derby-the-first, who appeared in an occult manner at his master's elbow—"Go with him, get his baggage, at once."
My things were mostly in the vicinity of the cuisine, where lodged the cuisinier, mechanician, menusier, etc., who had made room for me (some ten days since) on their own initiative, thus saving me the humiliation of sleeping with nineteen Americans in a tent which was always two-thirds full of mud. Thither I led the tin-derby, who scrutinised everything with surprising interest. I threw mes affaires hastily together (including some minor accessories which I was going to leave behind, but which the t-d bade me include) and emerged with a duffle-bag under one arm and a bed-roll under the other, to encounter my excellent friends, the "dirty Frenchmen," aforesaid. They all popped out together from one door, looking rather astonished. Something by way of explanation as well as farewell was most certainly required, so I made a speech in my best French:
"Gentlemen, friends, comrades—I am going away immediately and shall be guillotined tomorrow."
—"Oh hardly guillotined I should say," remarked t-d, in a voice which froze my marrow despite my high spirits; while the cook and carpenter gaped audibly and the mechanician clutched a hopelessly smashed carburetor for support.
One of the section's voitures, a F.I.A.T., was standing ready. General Nemo sternly forbade me to approach the Renault (in which B.'s baggage was already deposited) and waved me into the F.I.A.T., bed, bed-roll and all; whereupon t-d leaped in and seated himself opposite me in a position of perfect unrelaxation, which, despite my aforesaid exultation at quitting the section in general and Mr. A. in particular, impressed me as being almost menacing. Through the front window I saw my friend drive away with t-d Number 2 and Nemo; then, having waved hasty farewell to all les Americains that I knew—three in number—and having exchanged affectionate greetings with Mr. A. (who admitted he was very sorry indeed to lose us), I experienced the jolt of the clutch—and we were off in pursuit.
Whatever may have been the forebodings inspired by t-d Number 1's attitude, they were completely annihilated by the thrilling joy which I experienced on losing sight of the accursed section and its asinine inhabitants—by the indisputable and authentic thrill of going somewhere and nowhere, under the miraculous auspices of someone and no one—of being yanked from the putrescent banalities of an official non-existence into a high and clear adventure, by a deus ex machina in a grey-blue uniform, and a couple of tin derbies. I whistled and sang and cried to my vis-a-vis: "By the way, who is yonder distinguished gentleman who has been so good as to take my friend and me on this little promenade?"—to which, between lurches of the groaning F.I.A.T., t-d replied awesomely, clutching at the window for the benefit of his equilibrium: "Monsieur le Ministre de Surete de Noyon."
Not in the least realizing what this might mean, I grinned. A responsive grin, visiting informally the tired cheeks of my confrere, ended by frankly connecting his worthy and enormous ears which were squeezed into oblivion by the oversize casque. My eyes, jumping from those ears, lit on that helmet and noticed for the first time an emblem, a sort of flowering little explosion, or hair-switch rampant. It seemed to me very jovial and a little absurd.
"We're on our way to Noyon, then?"
T-d shrugged his shoulders.
Here the driver's hat blew off. I heard him swear, and saw the hat sailing in our wake. I jumped to my feet as the F.I.A.T. came to a sudden stop, and started for the ground—then checked my flight in mid-air and landed on the seat, completely astonished. T-d's revolver, which had hopped from its holster at my first move, slid back into its nest. The owner of the revolver was muttering something rather disagreeable. The driver (being an American of Vingt-et-Un) was backing up instead of retrieving his cap in person. My mind felt as if it had been thrown suddenly from fourth into reverse. I pondered and said nothing.
On again—faster, to make up for lost time. On the correct assumption that t-d does not understand English the driver passes the time of day through the minute window:
"For Christ's sake, Cummings, what's up?"
"You got me," I said, laughing at the delicate naivete of the question.
"Did y' do something to get pinched?"
"Probably," I answered importantly and vaguely, feeling a new dignity.
"Well, if you didn't, maybe B—— did."
"Maybe," I countered, trying not to appear enthusiastic. As a matter of fact I was never so excited and proud. I was, to be sure, a criminal! Well, well, thank God that settled one question for good and all—no more Section Sanitaire for me! No more Mr. A. and his daily lectures on cleanliness, deportment, etc.! In spite of myself I started to sing. The driver interrupted:
"I heard you asking the tin lid something in French. Whadhesay?"
"Said that gink in the Renault is the head cop of Noyon," I answered at random.
"GOODNIGHT. Maybe we'd better ring off, or you'll get in wrong with"—he indicated t-d with a wave of his head that communicated itself to the car in a magnificent skid; and t-d's derby rang out as the skid pitched t-d the length of the F.I.A.T.
"You rang the bell then," I commented—then to t-d: "Nice car for the wounded to ride in," I politely observed. T-d answered nothing....
We drive straight up to something which looks unpleasantly like a feudal dungeon. The driver is now told to be somewhere at a certain time, and meanwhile to eat with the Head Cop, who may be found just around the corner—(I am doing, the translating for t-d)—and, oh yes, it seems that the Head Cop has particularly requested the pleasure of this distinguished American's company at dejeuner.
"Does he mean me?" the driver asked innocently.
"Sure," I told him.
Nothing is said of B. or me.
Now, cautiously, t-d first and I a slow next, we descend. The F.I.A.T. rumbles off, with the distinguished one's backward-glaring head poked out a yard more or less and that distinguished face so completely surrendered to mystification as to cause a large laugh on my part.
"You are hungry?"
It was the erstwhile-ferocious speaking. A criminal, I remembered, is somebody against whom everything he says and does is very cleverly made use of. After weighing the matter in my mind for some moments I decided at all cost to tell the truth, and replied:
"I could eat an elephant."
Hereupon t-d lead me to the Kitchen Itself, set me to eat upon a stool, and admonished the cook in a fierce voice:
"Give this great criminal something to eat in the name of the French Republic!"
And for the first time in three months I tasted Food.
T-d seated himself beside me, opened a huge jack-knife, and fell to, after first removing his tin derby and loosening his belt.
One of the pleasantest memories connected with that irrevocable meal is of a large, gentle, strong woman who entered in a hurry, and seeing me cried out:
"What is it?"
"It's an American, my mother," t-d answered through fried potatoes.
"Why is he here?" the woman touched me on the shoulder, and satisfied herself that I was real.
"The good God is doubtless acquainted with the explanation," said t-d pleasantly. "Not myself being the—"
"Ah, mon pauvre" said this very beautiful sort of woman. "You are going to be a prisoner here. Everyone of the prisoners has a marraine, do you understand? I am their marraine. I love them and look after them. Well, listen: I will be your marraine, too."
I bowed and looked around for something to pledge her in. T-d was watching. My eyes fell on a huge glass of red pinard. "Yes, drink," said my captor, with a smile. I raised my huge glass.
"A la sante de ma marraine charmante!"
—This deed of gallantry quite won the cook (a smallish, agile Frenchman) who shovelled several helps of potatoes on my already empty plate. The tin derby approved also: "That's right, eat, drink, you'll need it later perhaps." And his knife guillotined another delicious hunk of white bread.
At last, sated with luxuries, I bade adieu to my marraine and allowed t-d to conduct me (I going first, as always) upstairs and into a little den whose interior boasted two mattresses, a man sitting at the table, and a newspaper in the hands of the man.
"C'est un Americain," t-d said by way of introduction. The newspaper detached itself from the man who said: "He's welcome indeed: make yourself at home, Mr. American"—and bowed himself out. My captor immediately collapsed on one mattress.
I asked permission to do the same on the other, which favor was sleepily granted. With half-shut eyes my Ego lay and pondered: the delicious meal it had just enjoyed; what was to come; the joys of being a great criminal ... then, being not at all inclined to sleep, I read Le Petit Parisien quite through, even to Les Voies Urinaires.
Which reminded me—and I woke up t-d and asked: "May I visit the vespasienne?"
"Downstairs," he replied fuzzily, and readjusted his slumbers.
There was no one moving about in the little court. I lingered somewhat on the way upstairs. The stairs were abnormally dirty. When I reentered, t-d was roaring to himself. I read the journal through again. It must have been about three o'clock.
Suddenly t-d woke up, straightened and buckled his personality, and murmured: "It's time, come on."
Le bureau de Monsieur le Ministre was just around the corner, as it proved. Before the door stood the patient F.I.A.T. I was ceremoniously informed by t-d that we would wait on the steps.
Well! Did I know any more?—the American driver wanted to know.
Having proved to my own satisfaction that my fingers could still roll a pretty good cigarette, I answered: "No," between puffs.
The American drew nearer and whispered spectacularly: "Your friend is upstairs. I think they're examining him."
T-d got this; and though his rehabilitated dignity had accepted the "makin's" from its prisoner, it became immediately incensed:
"That's enough," he said sternly.
And dragged me tout-a-coup upstairs, where I met B. and his t-d coming out of the bureau door. B. looked peculiarly cheerful. "I think we're going to prison all right," he assured me.
Braced by this news, poked from behind by my t-d, and waved on from before by M. le Ministre himself, I floated vaguely into a very washed, neat, business-like and altogether American room of modest proportions, whose door was immediately shut and guarded on the inside by my escort.
Monsieur le Ministre said:
"Lift your arms."
Then he went through my pockets. He found cigarettes, pencils, a jack-knife and several francs. He laid his treasures on a clean table and said: "You are not allowed to keep these. I shall be responsible." Then he looked me coldly in the eye and asked if I had anything else?
I told him that I believed I had a handkerchief.
He asked me: "Have you anything in your shoes?"
"My feet," I said, gently.
"Come this way," he said frigidly, opening a door which I had not remarked. I bowed in acknowledgment of the courtesy, and entered room number 2.
I looked into six eyes which sat at a desk.
Two belonged to a lawyerish person in civilian clothes, with a bored expression, plus a moustache of dreamy proportions with which the owner constantly imitated a gentleman ringing for a drink. Two appertained to a splendid old dotard (a face all ski-jumps and toboggan slides), on whose protruding chest the rosette of the Legion pompously squatted. Numbers five and six had reference to Monsieur, who had seated himself before I had time to focus my slightly bewildered eyes.
Monsieur spoke sanitary English, as I have said.
"What is your name?"—"Edward E. Cummings."
—"Your second name?"—"E-s-t-l-i-n," I spelled it for him.—"How do you say that?"—I didn't understand.—"How do you say your name?"—"Oh," I said; and pronounced it. He explained in French to the moustache that my first name was Edouard, my second "A-s-tay-l-ee-n," and my third "Kay-umm-ee-n-gay-s"—and the moustache wrote it all down. Monsieur then turned to me once more:
"You are Irish?"—"No," I said, "American."—"You are Irish by family?"—"No, Scotch."—"You are sure that there was never an Irishman in your parents?"—"So far as I know," I said, "there never was an Irishman there."—"Perhaps a hundred years back?" he insisted.—"Not a chance," I said decisively. But Monsieur was not to be denied: "Your name it is Irish?"—"Cummings is a very old Scotch name," I told him fluently, "it used to be Comyn. A Scotchman named The Red Comyn was killed by Robert Bruce in a church. He was my ancestor and a very well-known man."—"But your second name, where have you got that?"—"From an Englishman, a friend of my father." This statement seemed to produce a very favorable impression in the case of the rosette, who murmured: "Un ami de son pere, un Anglais, bon!" several times. Monsieur, quite evidently disappointed, told the moustache in French to write down that I denied my Irish parentage; which the moustache did.
"What does your father in America?"—"He is a minister of the gospel," I answered. "Which church?"—"Unitarian." This puzzled him. After a moment he had an inspiration: "That is the same as a Free Thinker?"—I explained in French that it wasn't and that mon pere was a holy man. At last Monsieur told the moustache to write: Protestant; and the moustache obediently did so.
From this point on our conversation was carried on in French, somewhat to the chagrin of Monsieur, but to the joy of the rosette and with the approval of the moustache. In answer to questions, I informed them that I was a student for five years at Harvard (expressing great surprise that they had never heard of Harvard), that I had come to New York and studied painting, that I had enlisted in New York as conducteur voluntaire, embarking for France shortly after, about the middle of April.
Monsieur asked: "You met B—— on the paquebot?" I said I did.
Monsieur glanced significantly around. The rosette nodded a number of times. The moustache rang.
I understood that these kind people were planning to make me out the innocent victim of a wily villain, and could not forbear a smile. C'est rigoler, I said to myself; they'll have a great time doing it.
"You and your friend were together in Paris?" I said "yes." "How long?" "A month, while we were waiting for our uniforms."
A significant look by Monsieur, which is echoed by his confreres.
Leaning forward Monsieur asked coldly and carefully: "What did you do in Paris?" to which I responded briefly and warmly: "We had a good time."
This reply pleased the rosette hugely. He wagged his head till I thought it would have tumbled off. Even the mustache seemed amused. Monsieur le Ministre de la Surete de Noyon bit his lip. "Never mind writing that down," he directed the lawyer. Then, returning to the charge:
"You had a great deal of trouble with Lieutenant A.?"
I laughed outright at this complimentary nomenclature. "Yes, we certainly did."
He asked: "Why?"—so I sketched "Lieutenant" A. in vivid terms, making use of certain choice expressions with which one of the "dirty Frenchmen" attached to the section, a Parisien, master of argot, had furnished me. My phraseology surprised my examiners, one of whom (I think the moustache) observed sarcastically that I had made good use of my time in Paris.
Monsieur le Ministre asked: Was it true (a) that B. and I were always together and (b) preferred the company of the attached Frenchmen to that of our fellow-Americans?—to which I answered in the affirmative. Why? he wanted to know. So I explained that we felt that the more French we knew and the better we knew the French the better for us; expatiating a bit on the necessity for a complete mutual understanding of the Latin and Anglo-Saxon races if victory was to be won.
Again the rosette nodded with approbation.
Monsieur le Ministre may have felt that he was losing his case, for he played his trump card immediately: "You are aware that your friend has written to friends in America and to his family very bad letters." "I am not," I said.
In a flash I understood the motivation of Monsieur's visit to Vingt-et-Un: the French censor had intercepted some of B.'s letters, and had notified Mr. A. and Mr. A.'s translator, both of whom had thankfully testified to the bad character of B. and (wishing very naturally to get rid of both of us at once) had further averred that we were always together and that consequently I might properly be regarded as a suspicious character. Whereupon they had received instructions to hold us at the section until Noyon could arrive and take charge—hence our failure to obtain our long-overdue permission.
"Your friend," said Monsieur in English, "is here a short while ago. I ask him if he is up in the aeroplane flying over Germans will he drop the bombs on Germans and he say no, he will not drop any bombs on Germans."
By this falsehood (such it happened to be) I confess that I was nonplussed. In the first place, I was at the time innocent of third-degree methods. Secondly, I remembered that, a week or so since, B., myself and another American in the section had written a letter—which, on the advice of the sous-lieutenant who accompanied Vingt-et-Un as translator, we had addressed to the Under-Secretary of State in French Aviation—asking that inasmuch as the American Government was about to take over the Red Cross (which meant that all the Sanitary Sections would be affiliated with the American, and no longer with the French, Army) we three at any rate might be allowed to continue our association with the French by enlisting in l'Esquadrille Lafayette. One of the "dirty Frenchmen" had written the letter for us in the finest language imaginable, from data supplied by ourselves.
"You write a letter, your friend and you, for French aviation?"
Here I corrected him: there were three of us; and why didn't he have the third culprit arrested, might I ask? But he ignored this little digression, and wanted to know: Why not American aviation?—to which I answered: "Ah, but as my friend has so often said to me, the French are after all the finest people in the world."
This double-blow stopped Noyon dead, but only for a second.
"Did your friend write this letter?"—"No," I answered truthfully.—"Who did write it?"—"One of the Frenchmen attached to the section."—"What is his name?"—"I'm sure I don't know," I answered; mentally swearing that, whatever might happen to me the scribe should not suffer. "At my urgent request," I added.
Relapsing into French, Monsieur asked me if I would have any hesitation in dropping bombs on Germans? I said no, I wouldn't. And why did I suppose I was fitted to become aviator? Because, I told him, I weighed 135 pounds and could drive any kind of auto or motorcycle. (I hoped he would make me prove this assertion, in which case I promised myself that I wouldn't stop till I got to Munich; but no.)
"Do you mean to say that my friend was not only trying to avoid serving in the American Army but was contemplating treason as well?" I asked.
"Well, that would be it, would it not?" he answered coolly. Then, leaning forward once more, he fired at me: "Why did you write to an official so high?"
At this I laughed outright. "Because the excellent sous-lieutenant who translated when Mr. Lieutenant A. couldn't understand advised us to do so."
Following up this sortie, I addressed the mustache: "Write this down in the testimony—that I, here present, refuse utterly to believe that my friend is not as sincere a lover of France and the French people as any man living!—Tell him to write it," I commanded Noyon stonily. But Noyon shook his head, saying: "We have the very best reason for supposing your friend to be no friend of France." I answered: "That is not my affair. I want my opinion of my friend written in; do you see?" "That's reasonable," the rosette murmured; and the moustache wrote it down.
"Why do you think we volunteered?" I asked sarcastically, when the testimony was complete.
Monsieur le Ministre was evidently rather uncomfortable. He writhed a little in his chair, and tweaked his chin three or four times. The rosette and the moustache were exchanging animated phrases. At last Noyon, motioning for silence and speaking in an almost desperate tone, demanded:
"Est-ce-que vous detestez les boches?"
I had won my own case. The question was purely perfunctory. To walk out of the room a free man I had merely to say yes. My examiners were sure of my answer. The rosette was leaning forward and smiling encouragingly. The moustache was making little ouis in the air with his pen. And Noyon had given up all hope of making me out a criminal. I might be rash, but I was innocent; the dupe of a superior and malign intelligence. I would probably be admonished to choose my friends more carefully next time and that would be all....
Deliberately, I framed the answer:
"Non. J'aime beaucoup les francais."
Agile as a weasel, Monsieur le Ministre was on top of me: "It is impossible to love Frenchmen and not to hate Germans."
I did not mind his triumph in the least. The discomfiture of the rosette merely amused me. The surprise of the moustache I found very pleasant.
Poor rosette! He kept murmuring desperately: "Fond of his friend, quite right. Mistaken of course, too bad, meant well."
With a supremely disagreeable expression on his immaculate face the victorious minister of security pressed his victim with regained assurance: "But you are doubtless aware of the atrocities committed by the boches?"
"I have read about them," I replied very cheerfully.
"You do not believe?"
"Ca ce peut."
"And if they are so, which of course they are" (tone of profound conviction) "you do not detest the Germans?"
"Oh, in that case, of course anyone must detest them," I averred with perfect politeness.
And my case was lost, forever lost. I breathed freely once more. All my nervousness was gone. The attempt of the three gentlemen sitting before me to endow my friend and myself with different fates had irrevocably failed.
At the conclusion of a short conference I was told by Monsieur:
"I am sorry for you, but due to your friend you will be detained a little while."
I asked: "Several weeks?"
"Possibly," said Monsieur.
This concluded the trial.
Monsieur le Ministre conducted me into room number 1 again. "Since I have taken your cigarettes and shall keep them for you, I will give you some tobacco. Do you prefer English or French?"
Because the French (paquet bleu) are stronger and because he expected me to say English, I said "French."
With a sorrowful expression Noyon went to a sort of bookcase and took down a blue packet. I think I asked for matches, or else he had given back the few which he found on my person.
Noyon, t-d and the grand criminal (alias I) now descended solemnly to the F.I.A.T. The more and more mystified conducteur conveyed us a short distance to what was obviously a prison-yard. Monsieur le Ministre watched me descend my voluminous baggage.
This was carefully examined by Monsieur at the bureau, of the prison. Monsieur made me turn everything topsy-turvy and inside out. Monsieur expressed great surprise at a huge shell: where did I get it?—I said a French soldier gave it to me as a souvenir.—And several tetes d'obus?—also souvenirs, I assured him merrily. Did Monsieur suppose I was caught in the act of blowing up the French Government, or what exactly?—But here are a dozen sketch-books, what is in them?—Oh, Monsieur, you flatter me: drawings.—Of fortifications? Hardly; of poilus, children, and other ruins.—Ummmm. (Monsieur examined the drawings and found that I had spoken the truth.) Monsieur puts all these trifles into a small bag, with which I had been furnished (in addition to the huge duffle-bag) by the generous Red Cross. Labels them (in French): "Articles found in the baggage of Cummings and deemed inutile to the case at hand." This leaves in the duffle-bag aforesaid: my fur coat, which I brought from New York; my bed and blankets and bed-roll, my civilian clothes, and about twenty-five pounds of soiled linen. "You may take the bed-roll and the folding bed into your cell"—the rest of my affaires would remain in safe keeping at the bureau.
"Come with me," grimly croaked a lank turnkey creature.
Bed-roll and bed in hand, I came along.
We had but a short distance to go; several steps in fact. I remember we turned a corner and somehow got sight of a sort of square near the prison. A military band was executing itself to the stolid delight of some handfuls of ragged civiles. My new captor paused a moment; perhaps his patriotic soul was stirred. Then we traversed an alley with locked doors on both sides, and stopped in front of the last door on the right. A key opened it. The music could still be distinctly heard.
The opened door showed a room, about sixteen feet short and four feet narrow, with a heap of straw in the further end. My spirits had been steadily recovering from the banality of their examination; and it was with a genuine and never-to-be-forgotten thrill that I remarked, as I crossed what might have been the threshold: "Mais, on est bien ici."
A hideous crash nipped the last word. I had supposed the whole prison to have been utterly destroyed by earthquake, but it was only my door closing....
I put the bed-roll down. I stood up.
I was myself.
An uncontrollable joy gutted me after three months of humiliation, of being bossed and herded and bullied and insulted. I was myself and my own master.
In this delirium of relief (hardly noticing what I did) I inspected the pile of straw, decided against it, set up my bed, disposed the roll on it, and began to examine my cell.
I have mentioned the length and breadth. The cell was ridiculously high; perhaps ten feet. The end with the door in it was peculiar. The door was not placed in the middle of this end, but at one side, allowing for a huge iron can waist-high which stood in the other corner. Over the door and across the end, a grating extended. A slit of sky was always visible.
Whistling joyously to myself, I took three steps which brought me to the door-end. The door was massively made, all of iron or steel I should think. It delighted me. The can excited my curiosity. I looked over the edge of it. At the bottom reposefully lay a new human turd.
I have a sneaking mania for wood-cuts, particularly when used to illustrate the indispensable psychological crisis of some outworn romance. There is in my possession at this minute a masterful depiction of a tall, bearded, horrified man who, clad in an anonymous rig of goat skins, with a fantastic umbrella clasped weakly in one huge paw, bends to examine an indication of humanity in the somewhat cubist wilderness whereof he had fancied himself the owner....
It was then that I noticed the walls. Arm-high they were covered with designs, mottos, pictures. The drawing had all been done in pencil. I resolved to ask for a pencil at the first opportunity.
There had been Germans and Frenchmen imprisoned in this cell. On the right wall, near the door-end, was a long selection from Goethe, laboriously copied. Near the other end of this wall a satiric landscape took place. The technique of this landscape frightened me. There were houses, men, children. And there were trees. I began to wonder what a tree looks like, and laughed copiously.
The back wall had a large and exquisite portrait of a German officer.
The left wall was adorned with a yacht, flying a number 13. "My beloved boat" was inscribed in German underneath. Then came a bust of a German soldier, very idealized, full of unfear. After this, a masterful crudity—a doughnut-bodied rider, sliding with fearful rapidity down the acute backbone of a totally transparent sausage-shaped horse, who was moving simultaneously in five directions. The rider had a bored expression as he supported the stiff reins in one fist. His further leg assisted in his flight. He wore a German soldier's cap and was smoking. I made up my mind to copy the horse and rider at once, so soon, that is, as I should have obtained a pencil.
Last, I found a drawing surrounded by a scrolled motto. The drawing was a potted plant with four blossoms. The four blossoms were elaborately dead. Their death was drawn with a fearful care. An obscure deliberation was exposed in the depiction of their drooping petals. The pot tottered very crookedly on a sort of table, as near as I could see. All around ran a funereal scroll. I read: "My farewell to my beloved wife, Gaby." A fierce hand, totally distinct from the former, wrote in proud letters above: "Punished for desertion. Six years of prison—military degradation."
It must have been five o'clock. Steps. A vast cluttering of the exterior of the door—by whom? Whang opens the door. Turnkey-creature extending a piece of chocolate with extreme and surly caution. I say "Merci" and seize chocolate. Klang shuts the door.
I am lying on my back, the twilight does mistily bluish miracles through the slit over the whang-klang. I can just see leaves, meaning tree.
Then from the left and way off, faintly, broke a smooth whistle, cool like a peeled willow-branch, and I found myself listening to an air from Petroushka, Petroushka, which we saw in Paris at the Chatelet, mon ami et moi....
The voice stopped in the middle—and I finished the air. This code continued for a half-hour.
It was dark.
I had laid a piece of my piece of chocolate on the window-sill. As I lay on my back a little silhouette came along the sill and ate that piece of a piece, taking something like four minutes to do so. He then looked at me, I then smiled at him, and we parted, each happier than before.
My cellule was cool, and I fell asleep easily.
(Thinking of Paris.)
... Awakened by a conversation whose vibrations I clearly felt through the left wall:
A moldly moldering molish voice, suggesting putrifying tracts and orifices, answers with a cob-webbish patience so far beyond despair as to be indescribable: "La soupe."
"Well, the soup, I just gave it to you, Monsieur Savy."
"Must have a little something else. My money is chez le directeur. Please take my money which is chez le directeur and give me anything else."
"All right, the next time I come to see you to-day I'll bring you a salad, a nice salad, Monsieur."
"Thank you, Monsieur," the voice moldered.
Klang!!—and says the turnkey-creature to somebody else; while turning the lock of Monsieur Savy's door; taking pains to raise his voice so that Monsieur Savy will not miss a single word through the slit over Monsieur Savy's whang-klang:
"That old fool! Always asks for things. When supposest thou will he realize that he's never going to get anything?"
Grubbing at my door. Whang!
The faces stood in the doorway, looking me down. The expression of the faces identically turnkeyish, i.e., stupidly gloating, ponderously and imperturbably tickled. Look who's here, who let that in?
The right body collapsed sufficiently to deposit a bowl just inside.
I smiled and said: "Good morning, sirs. The can stinks."
They did not smile and said: "Naturally." I smiled and said: "Please give me a pencil. I want to pass the time." They did not smile and said: "Directly."
I smiled and said: "I want some water, if you please."
They shut the door, saying "Later."
Klang and footsteps.
I contemplate the bowl which contemplates me. A glaze of greenish grease seals the mystery of its content, I induce two fingers to penetrate the seal. They bring me up a flat sliver of cabbage and a large, hard, thoughtful, solemn, uncooked bean. To pour the water off (it is warmish and sticky) without committing a nuisance is to lift the cover off Ca Pue. I did.
Thus leaving beans and cabbage-slivers. Which I ate hurryingly, fearing a ventral misgiving.
I pass a lot of time cursing myself about the pencil, looking at my walls, my unique interior.
Suddenly I realize the indisputable grip of nature's humorous hand. One evidently stands on Ca Pue in such cases. Having finished, panting with stink, I tumble on the bed and consider my next move.
The straw will do. Ouch, but it's Dirty.—Several hours elapse....
Steps and fumble. Klang. Repetition of promise to Monsieur Savy, etc.
Turnkeyish and turnkeyish. Identical expression. One body collapses sufficiently to deposit a hunk of bread and a piece of water.
"Give your bowl."
I gave it, smiled and said: "Well, how about that pencil?"
"Pencil?" T-c looked at T-c.
They recited then the following word: "To-morrow." Klang and footsteps.
So I took matches, burnt, and with just 60 of them wrote the first stanza of a ballade. To-morrow I will write the second. Day after to-morrow the third. Next day the refrain. After—oh, well.
My whistling of Petroushka brought no response this evening.
So I climbed on Ca Pue, whom I now regarded with complete friendliness; the new moon was unclosing sticky wings in dusk, a far noise from near things.
I sang a song the "dirty Frenchmen" taught us, mon ami et moi. The song says Bon soir, Madame de la Lune.... I did not sing out loud, simply because the moon was like a mademoiselle, and I did not want to offend the moon. My friends: the silhouette and la lune, not counting Ca Pue, whom I regarded almost as a part of me.
Then I lay down, and heard (but could not see the silhouette eat something or somebody) ... and saw, but could not hear, the incense of Ca Pue mount gingerly upon the taking air of twilight.
The next day.—Promise to M. Savy. Whang. "My pencil?"—"You don't need any pencil, you're going away."—"When?"—"Directly."—"How directly?"—"In an hour or two: your friend has already gone before. Get ready."
Klang and steps.
Everyone very sore about me. I should worry, however.
One hour, I guess.
Steps. Sudden throwing of door open. Pause.
"Come out, American."
As I came out, toting bed and bed-roll, I remarked: "I'm sorry to leave you," which made T-c furiously to masticate his insignificant moustache.
Escorted to bureau, where I am turned over to a very fat gendarme.
"This is the American." The v-f-g eyed me, and I read my sins in his porklike orbs. "Hurry, we have to walk," he ventured sullenly and commandingly.
Himself stooped puffingly to pick up the segregated sack. And I placed my bed, bed-roll, blankets and ample pelisse under one arm, my 150-odd pound duffle-bag under the other; then I paused. Then I said, "Where's my cane?"
The v-f-g hereat had a sort of fit, which perfectly became him.
I repeated gently: "When I came to the bureau I had a cane."
"I don't give a damn about your cane," burbled my new captor frothily, his pink evil eyes swelling with wrath.
"I'm staying," I replied calmly, and sat down on a curb, in the midst of my ponderous trinkets.
A crowd of gendarmes gathered. One didn't take a cane with one to prison (I was glad to know where I was bound, and thanked this communicative gentleman); or criminals weren't allowed canes; or where exactly did I think I was, in the Tuileries? asks a rube movie-cop personage.
"Very well, gentlemen," I said. "You will allow me to tell you something." (I was beet-colored.) "In America that sort of thing isn't done."
This haughty inaccuracy produced an astonishing effect, namely, the prestidigitatorial vanishment of the v-f-g. The v-f-g's numerous confreres looked scared and twirled their whiskers.
I sat on the curb and began to fill a paper with something which I found in my pockets, certainly not tobacco.
Splutter-splutter-fizz-Poop—the v-f-g is back, with my oak-branch in his raised hand, slithering opprobria and mostly crying: "Is that huge piece of wood what you call a cane? It is, is it? What? How? What the—," so on.
I beamed upon him and thanked him, and explained that a "dirty Frenchman" had given it to me as a souvenir, and that I would now proceed.
Twisting the handle in the loop of my sack, and hoisting the vast parcel under my arm, I essayed twice to boost it on my back. This to the accompaniment of HurryHurryHurryHurryHurryHurryHurry.... The third time I sweated and staggered to my feet, completely accoutred.
Down the road. Into the ville. Curious looks from a few pedestrians. A driver stops his wagon to watch the spider and his outlandish fly. I chuckled to think how long since I had washed and shaved. Then I nearly fell, staggered on a few steps, and set down the two loads.
Perhaps it was the fault of a strictly vegetarian diet. At any rate, I couldn't move a step farther with my bundles. The sun sent the sweat along my nose in tickling waves. My eyes were blind.
Hereupon I suggested that the v-f-g carry part of one of my bundles with me, and received the answer: "I am doing too much for you as it is. No gendarme is supposed to carry a prisoner's baggage."
I said then: "I'm too tired."
He responded: "You can leave here anything you don't care to carry further; I'll take care of it."
I looked at the gendarme. I looked several blocks through him. My lip did something like a sneer. My hands did something like fists.
At this crisis along comes a little boy. May God bless all males between seven and ten years of age in France!
The gendarme offered a suggestion, in these words: "Have you any change about you?" He knew, of course, that the sanitary official's first act had been to deprive me of every last cent. The gendarme's eyes were fine. They reminded me of ... never mind. "If you have change," said he, "you might hire this kid to carry some of your baggage." Then he lit a pipe which was made in his own image, and smiled fattily.
But herein the v-f-g had bust his milk-jug. There is a slit of a pocket made in the uniform of his criminal on the right side, and completely covered by the belt which his criminal always wears. His criminal had thus outwitted the gumshoe fraternity.
The gosse could scarcely balance my smaller parcel, but managed after three rests to get it to the station platform; here I tipped him something like two cents (all I had) which, with dollar-big eyes, he took and ran.
A strongly-built, groomed apache smelling of cologne and onions greeted my v-f-g with that affection which is peculiar to gendarmes. On me he stared cynically, then sneered frankly.
With a little tooty shriek the funny train tottered in. My captors had taken pains to place themselves at the wrong end of the platform. Now they encouraged me to HurryHurryHurry.
I managed to get under the load and tottered the length of the train to a car especially reserved. There was one other criminal, a beautifully-smiling, shortish man, with a very fine blanket wrapped in a water-proof oilskin cover. We grinned at each other (the most cordial salutation, by the way, that I have ever exchanged with a human being) and sat down opposite one another—he, plus my baggage which he helped me lift in, occupying one seat; the gendarme-sandwich, of which I formed the piece de resistance, the other.
The engine got under way after several feints; which pleased the Germans so that they sent several scout planes right over the station, train, us et tout. All the French anticraft guns went off together for the sake of sympathy; the guardians of the peace squinted cautiously from their respective windows, and then began a debate on the number of the enemy while their prisoners smiled at each other appreciatively.
"Il fait chaud," said this divine man, prisoner, criminal, or what not, as he offered me a glass of wine in the form of a huge tin cup overflowed from the canteen in his slightly unsteady and delicately made hand. He is a Belgian. Volunteered at beginning of war. Permission at Paris, overstayed by one day. When he reported to his officer, the latter announced that he was a deserter—I said to him, "It is funny. It is funny I should have come back, of my own free will, to my company. I should have thought that being a deserter I would have preferred to remain in Paris." The wine was terribly cold, and I thanked my divine host.
Never have I tasted such wine.
They had given me a chunk of war-bread in place of blessing when I left Noyon. I bit into it with renewed might. But the divine man across from me immediately produced a sausage, half of which he laid simply upon my knee. The halving was done with a large keen poilu's knife.
I have not tasted a sausage since.
The pigs on my either hand had by this time overcome their respective inertias and were chomping cheek-murdering chunks. They had quite a layout, a regular picnic-lunch elaborate enough for kings or even presidents. The v-f-g in particular annoyed me by uttering alternate chompings and belchings. All the time he ate he kept his eyes half-shut; and a mist overspread the sensual meadows of his coarse face.
His two reddish eyes rolled devouringly toward the blanket in its waterproof roll. After a huge gulp of wine he said thickly (for his huge moustache was crusted with saliva-tinted half-moistened shreds of food), "You will have no use for that machine la-bas. They are going to take everything away from you when you get there, you know. I could use it nicely. I have wanted such a piece of rubber for a great while, in order to make me a raincoat. Do you see?" (Gulp. Swallow.)
Here I had an inspiration. I would save the blanket-cover by drawing these brigands' attention to myself. At the same time I would satisfy my inborn taste for the ridiculous. "Have you a pencil?" I said. "Because I am an artist in my own country, and will do your picture."
He gave me a pencil. I don't remember where the paper came from. I posed him in a pig-like position, and the picture made him chew his moustache. The apache thought it very droll. I should do his picture, too, at once. I did my best; though protesting that he was too beautiful for my pencil, which remark he countered by murmuring (as he screwed his moustache another notch), "Never mind, you will try." Oh, yes, I would try all right, all right. He objected, I recall, to the nose.
By this time the divine "deserter" was writhing with joy. "If you please, Monsieur," he whispered radiantly, "it would be too great an honor, but if you could—I should be overcome...."
Tears (for some strange reason) came into my eyes.
He handled his picture sacredly, criticised it with precision and care, finally bestowed it in his inner pocket. Then we drank. It happened that the train stopped and the apache was persuaded to go out and get his prisoner's canteen filled. Then we drank again.
He smiled as he told me he was getting ten years. Three years at solitary confinement was it, and seven working in a gang on the road? That would not be so bad. He wished he was not married, had not a little child. "The bachelors are lucky in this war"—he smiled.
Now the gendarmes began cleaning their beards, brushing their stomachs, spreading their legs, collecting their baggage. The reddish eyes, little and cruel, woke from the trance of digestion and settled with positive ferocity on their prey. "You will have no use...."
Silently the sensitive, gentle hands of the divine prisoner undid the blanket-cover. Silently the long, tired, well-shaped arms passed it across to the brigand at my left side. With a grunt of satisfaction the brigand stuffed it in a large pouch, taking pains that it should not show. Silently the divine eyes said to mine: "What can we do, we criminals?" And we smiled at each other for the last time, the eyes and my eyes.
A station. The apache descends. I follow with my numerous affaires. The divine man follows me—the v-f-g him.
The blanket-roll containing my large fur-coat got more and more unrolled; finally I could not possibly hold it.
It fell. To pick it up I must take the sack off my back.
Then comes a voice, "allow me if you please, monsieur"—and the sack has disappeared. Blindly and dumbly I stumble on with the roll; and so at length we come into the yard of a little prison; and the divine man bowed under my great sack.... I never thanked him. When I turned, they'd taken him away, and the sack stood accusingly at my feet.
Through the complete disorder of my numbed mind flicker jabbings of strange tongues. Some high boy's voice is appealing to me in Belgian, Italian, Polish, Spanish and—beautiful English. "Hey, Jack, give me a cigarette, Jack...."
I lift my eyes. I am standing in a tiny oblong space. A sort of court. All around, two-story wooden barracks. Little crude staircases lead up to doors heavily chained and immensely padlocked. More like ladders than stairs. Curious hewn windows, smaller in proportion than the slits in a doll's house. Are these faces behind the slits? The doors bulge incessantly under the shock of bodies hurled against them from within. The whole dirty nouveau business about to crumble.
Glance two: directly before me. A wall with many bars fixed across one minute opening. At the opening a dozen, fifteen, grins. Upon the bars hands, scraggy and bluishly white. Through the bars stretching of lean arms, incessant stretchings. The grins leap at the window, hands belonging to them catch hold, arms belonging to the hands stretch in my direction ... an instant; the new grins leap from behind and knock off the first grins which go down with a fragile crashing like glass smashed: hands wither and break, arms streak out of sight, sucked inward.
In the huge potpourri of misery a central figure clung, shaken but undislodged. Clung like a monkey to central bars. Clung like an angel to a harp. Calling pleasantly in a high boyish voice: "O Jack, give me a cigarette."
A handsome face, dark, Latin smile, musical fingers strong.
I waded suddenly through a group of gendarmes (they stood around me watching with a disagreeable curiosity my reaction to this). Strode fiercely to the window.
Trillions of hands.
Quadrillions of itching fingers.
The angel-monkey received the package of cigarettes politely, disappearing with it into howling darkness. I heard his high boy's voice distributing cigarettes. Then he leaped into sight, poised gracefully against two central bars, saying "Thank you, Jack, good boy" ... "Thanks, merci, gracias ..." a deafening din of gratitude reeked from within.
"Put your baggage in here," quoth an angry voice. "No, you will not take anything but one blanket in your cell, understand." In French. Evidently the head of the house speaking. I obeyed. A corpulent soldier importantly lead me to my cell. My cell is two doors away from the monkey-angel, on the same side. The high boy-voice, centralized in a torrent-like halo of stretchings, followed my back. The head himself unlocked a lock. I marched coldly in. The fat soldier locked and chained my door. Four feet went away. I felt in my pocket, finding four cigarettes. I am sorry I did not give these also to the monkey—to the angel. Lifted my eyes and saw my own harp.
A PILGRIM'S PROGRESS
Through the bars I looked into that little and dirty lane whereby I had entered; in which a sentinel, gun on shoulder, and with a huge revolver strapped at his hip, monotonously moved. On my right was an old wall overwhelmed with moss. A few growths stemmed from its crevices. Their leaves were of a refreshing colour. I felt singularly happy, and carefully throwing myself on the bare planks sang one after another all the French songs which I had picked up in my stay at the ambulance; sang La Madelon, sang AVec avEC DU, and Les Galiots Sont Lourds Dans Sac—concluding with an inspired rendering of La Marseillaise, at which the guard (who had several times stopped his round in what I choose to interpret as astonishment) grounded arms and swore appreciatively. Various officials of the jail passed by me and my lusty songs; I cared no whit. Two or three conferred, pointing in my direction, and I sang a little louder for the benefit of their perplexity. Finally out of voice I stopped.
It was twilight.
As I lay on my back luxuriously, I saw through the bars of my twice padlocked door a boy and a girl about ten years old. I saw them climb on the wall and play together, obliviously and exquisitely, in the darkening air. I watched them for many minutes; till the last moment of light failed; till they and the wall itself dissolved in a common mystery, leaving only the bored silhouette of the soldier moving imperceptibly and wearily against a still more gloomy piece of autumn sky.
At last I knew that I was very thirsty; and leaping up began to clamor at my bars. "Something to drink, please." After a long debate with the sergeant of guards who said very angrily: "Give it to him," a guard took my request and disappeared from view, returning with a more heavily armed guard and a tin cup full of water. One of these gentry watched the water and me, while the other wrestled with the padlock. The door being minutely opened, one guard and the water painfully entered. The other guard remained at the door, gun in readiness. The water was set down, and the enterer assumed a perpendicular position which I thought merited recognition; accordingly I said "Merci" politely, without getting up from the planks. Immediately he began to deliver a sharp lecture on the probability of my using the tin cup to saw my way out; and commended haste in no doubtful terms. I smiled, asked pardon for my inherent stupidity (which speech seemed to anger him) and guzzled the so-called water without looking at it, having learned something from Noyon. With a long and dangerous look at their prisoner, the gentlemen of the guard withdrew, using inconceivable caution in the relocking of the door.
I laughed and fell asleep.
After (as I judged) four minutes of slumber, I was awakened by at least six men standing over me. The darkness was intense, it was extraordinarily cold. I glared at them and tried to understand what new crime I had committed. One of the six was repeating: "Get up, you are going away. Four o'clock." After several attempts I got up. They formed a circle around me; and together we marched a few steps to a sort of storeroom, where my great sack, small sack, and overcoat were handed to me. A rather agreeably voiced guard then handed me a half-cake of chocolate, saying (but with a tolerable grimness): "You'll need it, believe me." I found my stick, at which "piece of furniture" they amused themselves a little until I showed its use, by catching the ring at the mouth of my sack in the curved end of the stick and swinging the whole business unaided on my back. Two new guards—or rather gendarmes—were now officially put in charge of my person; and the three of us passed down the lane, much to the interest of the sentinel, to whom I bade a vivid and unreturned adieu. I can see him perfectly as he stares stupidly at us, a queer shape in the gloom, before turning on his heel.
Toward the very station whereat some hours since I had disembarked with the Belgian deserter and my former escorts, we moved. I was stiff with cold and only half awake, but peculiarly thrilled. The gendarmes on either side moved grimly, without speaking; or returning monosyllables to my few questions. Yes, we were to take the train. I was going somewhere, then? "B'en sure."—"Where?"—"You will know in time."
After a few minutes we reached the station, which I failed to recognize. The yellow flares of lamps, huge and formless in the night mist, some figures moving to and fro on a little platform, a rustle of conversation: everything seemed ridiculously suppressed, beautifully abnormal, deliciously insane. Every figure was wrapped with its individual ghostliness; a number of ghosts each out on his own promenade, yet each for some reason selecting this unearthly patch of the world, this putrescent and uneasy gloom. Even my guards talked in whispers. "Watch him, I'll see about the train." So one went off into the mist. I leaned dizzily against the wall nearest me (having plumped down my baggage) and stared into the darkness at my elbow, filled with talking shadows. I recognized officiers anglais wandering helplessly up and down, supported with their sticks; French lieutenants talking to each other here and there; the extraordinary sense-bereft station master at a distance looking like a cross between a jumping-jack and a goblin; knots of permissionaires cursing wearily or joking hopelessly with one another or stalking back and forth with imprecatory gesticulations. "It's a joke, too, you know, there are no more trains?"—"The conductor is dead. I know his sister."—"Old chap, I am all in."—"Say, we are all lost."—"What time is it?"—"My dear fellow, there is no more time, the French Government forbids it." Suddenly burst out of the loquacious opacity a dozen handfuls of Algeriens, their feet swaggering with fatigue, their eyes burning, apparently by themselves—faceless in the equally black mist. By threes and fives they assaulted the goblin who wailed and shook his withered fist in their faces. There was no train. It had been taken away by the French Government. "How do I know how the poilus can get back to their regiments on time? Of course you'll all of you be deserters, but is it my fault?" (I thought of my friend, the Belgian, at this moment lying in a pen at the prison which I had just quitted by some miracle.) ... One of these fine people from uncivilized, ignorant, unwarlike Algeria was drunk and knew it, as did two of his very fine friends who announced that as there was no train he should have a good sleep at a farmhouse hard by, which farmhouse one of them claimed to espy through the impenetrable night. The drunk was accordingly escorted into the dark, his friends' abrupt steps correcting his own large slovenly procedure out of earshot.... Some of the Black People sat down near me and smoked. Their enormous faces, wads of vital darkness, swooned with fatigue. Their vast gentle hands lay noisily about their knees.
The departed gendarme returned, with a bump, out of the mist. The train for Paris would arrive de suite. We were just in time, our movement had so far been very creditable. All was well. It was cold, eh?
Then with the ghastly miniature roar of an insane toy the train for Paris came fumbling into the station....
We boarded it, due caution being taken that I should not escape. As a matter of fact I held up the would-be passengers for nearly a minute by my unaided attempts to boost my uncouth baggage aboard. Then my captors and I blundered heavily into a compartment in which an Englishman and two French women were seated. My gendarmes established themselves on either side of the door, a process which woke up the Anglo-Saxon and caused a brief gap in the low talk of the women. Jolt—we were off.
I find myself with a francaise on my left and an anglais on my right. The latter has already uncomprehendingly subsided into sleep. The former (a woman of about thirty) is talking pleasantly to her friend, whom I face. She must have been very pretty before she put on the black. Her friend is also a veuve. How pleasantly they talk, of la guerre, of Paris, of the bad service; talk in agreeably modulated voices, leaning a little forward to each other, not wishing to disturb the dolt at my right. The train tears slowly on. Both the gendarmes are asleep, one with his hand automatically grasping the handle of the door. Lest I escape. I try all sorts of positions, for I find myself very tired. The best is to put my cane between my legs and rest my chin on it; but even that is uncomfortable, for the Englishman has writhed all over me by this time and is snoring creditably. I look him over; an Etonian, as I guess. Certain well-bred-well-fedness. Except for the position—well, c'est la guerre. The women are speaking softly. "And do you know, my dear, that they had raids again in Paris? My sister wrote me."—"One has excitement always in a great city, my dear."—
Bump, slowing down. BUMP—BUMP.
It is light outside. One sees the world. There is a world still, the gouvernement francais has not taken it away, and the air must be beautifully cool. In the compartment it is hot. The gendarmes smell worst. I know how I smell. What polite women.
"Enfin, nous voila." My guards awoke and yawned pretentiously. Lest I should think they had dozed off. It is Paris.
Some permissionaires cried "Paris." The woman across from me said "Paris, Paris." A great shout came up from every insane drowsy brain that had travelled with us—a fierce and beautiful cry, which went the length of the train.... Paris, where one forgets, Paris, which is Pleasure, Paris, in whom our souls live, Paris, the beautiful, Paris at last.
The Englishman woke up and said heavily to me: "I say, where are we?"—"Paris," I answered, walking carefully on his feet as I made my baggage-laden way out of the compartment. It was Paris.
My guards hurried me through the station. One of them (I saw for the first time) was older than the other, and rather handsome with his Van Dyck blackness of curly beard. He said that it was too early for the metro, it was closed. We should take a car. It would bring us to the other station from which our next train left. We should hurry. We emerged from the station and its crowds of crazy men. We boarded a car marked something. The conductress, a strong, pink-cheeked, rather beautiful girl in black, pulled my baggage in for me with a gesture which filled all of me with joy. I thanked her, and she smiled at me. The car moved along through the morning.
We descended from it. We started off on foot. The car was not the right car. We would have to walk to the station. I was faint and almost dead from weariness and I stopped when my overcoat had fallen from my benumbed arm for the second time: "How far is it?" The older gendarme returned briefly, "Twenty minutes." I said to him: "Will you help me carry these things?" He thought, and told the younger to carry my small sack filled with papers. The latter grunted, "C'est defendu." We went a little farther, and I broke down again. I stopped dead, and said: "I can't go any farther." It was obvious to my escorts that I couldn't, so I didn't trouble to elucidate. Moreover, I was past elucidation.
The older stroked his beard. "Well," he said, "would you care to take a cab?" I merely looked at him. "If you wish to call a cab, I will take out of your money, which I have here and which I must not give to you, the necessary sum, and make a note of it, subtracting from the original amount a sufficiency for our fare to the Gare. In that case we will not walk to the Gare, we will in fact ride." "Please," was all I found to reply to this eloquence.
Several empty cabs had gone by during the peroration of the law, and no more seemed to offer themselves. After some minutes, however, one appeared and was duly hailed. Nervously (he was shy in the big city) the older asked if the driver knew where the Gare was. "Quelle?" demanded the cocher angrily. And when he was told—"Of course, I know, why not?" We got in; I being directed to sit in the middle, and my two bags and fur coat piled on top of us all.
So we drove through the streets in the freshness of the full morning, the streets full of a few divine people who stared at me and nudged one another, the streets of Paris ... the drowsy ways wakening at the horses' hoofs, the people lifting their faces to stare.
We arrived at the Gare, and I recognized it vaguely. Was it D'Orleans? We dismounted, and the tremendous transaction of the fare was apparently very creditably accomplished by the older. The cocher gave me a look and remarked whatever it is Paris drivers remark to Paris cab horses, pulling dully at the reins. We entered the station and I collapsed comfortably on a bench; the younger, seating himself with enormous pomposity at my side, adjusted his tunic with a purely feminine gesture expressive at once of pride and nervousness. Gradually my vision gained in focus. The station has a good many people in it. The number increases momently. A great many are girls. I am in a new world—a world of chic femininity. My eyes devour the inimitable details of costume, the inexpressible nuances of pose, the indescribable demarche of the midinette. They hold themselves differently. They have even a little bold color here and there on skirt or blouse or hat. They are not talking about La Guerre. Incredible. They appear very beautiful, these Parisiennes.
And simultaneously with my appreciation of the crisp persons about me comes the hitherto unacknowledged appreciation of my uncouthness. My chin tells my hand of a good quarter inch of beard, every hair of it stiff with dirt. I can feel the dirt-pools under my eyes. My hands are rough with dirt. My uniform is smeared and creased in a hundred thousand directions. My puttees and shoes are prehistoric in appearance....
My first request was permission to visit the vespasienne. The younger didn't wish to assume any unnecessary responsibilities; I should wait till the older returned. There he was now. I might ask him. The older benignly granted my petition, nodding significantly to his fellow-guard, by whom I was accordingly escorted to my destination and subsequently back to my bench. When we got back the gendarmes held a consultation of terrific importance; in substance, the train which should be leaving at that moment (six something) did not run to-day. We should therefore wait for the next train, which leaves at twelve-something-else. Then the older surveyed me and said almost kindly: "How would you like a cup of coffee?"—"Much," I replied sincerely enough.—"Come with me," he commanded, resuming instantly his official manner. "And you" (to the younger) "watch his baggage."
Of all the very beautiful women whom I had seen the most very beautiful was the large and circular lady who sold a cup of perfectly hot and genuine coffee for two cents, just on the brink of the station, chatting cheerfully with her many customers. Of all the drinks I ever drank, hers was the most sacredly delicious. She wore, I remember, a tight black dress in which enormous and benignant breasts bulged and sank continuously. I lingered over my tiny cup, watching her swift big hands, her round nodding face, her large sudden smile. I drank two coffees, and insisted that my money should pay for our drinks. Of all the treating which I shall ever do, the treating of my captor will stand unique in pleasure. Even he half appreciated the sense of humor involved; though his dignity did not permit a visible acknowledgment thereof.
Madame la vendeuse de cafe, I shall remember you for more than a little while.
Having thus consummated breakfast, my guardian suggested a walk. Agreed. I felt I had the strength of ten because the coffee was pure. Moreover it would be a novelty to me promener sans l50-odd pounds of baggage. We set out.
As we walked easily and leisurely the by this time well peopled streets of the vicinity, my guard indulged himself in pleasant conversation. Did I know Paris much? He knew it all. But he had not been in Paris for several (eight was it?) years. It was a fine place, a large city to be sure. But always changing. I had spent a month in Paris while waiting for my uniform and my assignment to a section sanitaire? And my friend was with me? H-mmm-mm.
A perfectly typical runt of a Paris bull eyed us. The older saluted him with infinite respect, the respect of a shabby rube deacon for a well-dressed burglar. They exchanged a few well-chosen words, in French of course. "What ya got there?"—"An American."—"What's wrong with him?"—"H-mmm" mysterious shrug of the shoulders followed by a whisper in the ear of the city thug. The latter contented himself with "Ha-aaa"—plus a look at me which was meant to wipe me off the earth's face (I pretended to be studying the morning meanwhile). Then we moved on, followed by ferocious stares from the Paris bull. Evidently I was getting to be more of a criminal every minute; I should probably be shot to-morrow, not (as I had assumed erroneously) the day after. I drank the morning with renewed vigor, thanking heaven for the coffee, Paris; and feeling complete confidence in myself. I should make a great speech (in Midi French). I should say to the firing squad: "Gentlemen, c'est de la blague, tu sais? Moi, je connais la soeur du conducteur." ... They would ask me when I preferred to die. I should reply, "Pardon me, you wish to ask me when I prefer to become immortal?" I should answer: "What matter? It's all the same to me, because there isn't any more time—the French Government forbids it."
My laughter surprised the older considerably. He would have been more astonished had I yielded to the well-nigh irrepressible inclination, which at the moment suffused me, to clap him heartily upon the back.