MoboReader > Literature > Three Soldiers

   Chapter 5 No.5

Three Soldiers By John Dos Passos Characters: 19515

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The company stood at attention lined up outside of their barracks, a long wooden shack covered with tar paper, in front of them was a row of dishevelled plane trees with white trunks that looked like ivory in the faint ruddy sunlight. Then there was a rutted road on which stood a long line of French motor trucks with hunched grey backs like elephants. Beyond these were more plane trees and another row of barracks covered with tar paper, outside of which other companies were lined up standing at attention.

A bugle was sounding far away.

The lieutenant stood at attention very stiffly. Fuselli's eyes followed the curves of his brilliantly-polished puttees up to the braid on his sleeves.

"Parade rest!" shouted the lieutenant in a muffled voice.

Feet and hands moved in unison.

Fuselli was thinking of the town. After retreat you could go down the irregular cobbled street from the old fair-ground where the camp was to a little square where there was a grey stone fountain and a gin-mill where you could sit at an oak table and have beer and eggs and fried potatoes served you by a girl with red cheeks and plump white appetizing arms.

"Attention!"

Feet and hands moved in unison again. They could hardly hear the bugle, it was so faint.

"Men, I have some appointments to announce," said the lieutenant, facing the company and taking on an easy conversational tone. "At rest!... You've done good work in the storehouse here, men. I'm glad I have such a willing bunch of men under me. And I certainly hope that we can manage to make as many promotions as possible-as many as possible."

Fuselli's hands were icy, and his heart was pumping the blood so fast to his ears that he could hardly hear.

"The following privates to private first-class, read the lieutenant in a routine voice: "Grey, Appleton, Williams, Eisenstein, Porter...Eisenstein will be company clerk.... " Fuselli was almost ready to cry. His name was not on the list. The sergeant's voice came after a long pause, smooth as velvet.

"You forget Fuselli, sir."

"Oh, so I did," the lieutenant laughed-a small dry laugh.-"And Fuselli."

"Gee, I must write Mabe tonight," Fuselli was saying to himself. "She'll be a proud kid when she gets that letter."

"Companee dis... missed!", shouted the sergeant genially.

"O Madermoiselle from Armenteers,

Parley voo?

O Madermoiselle from Armenteers,

struck up the sergeant in his mellow voice.

The front room of the cafe was full of soldiers. Their khaki hid the worn oak benches and the edges of the square tables and the red tiles of the floor. They clustered round the tables, where glasses and bottles gleamed vaguely through the tobacco smoke. They stood in front of the bar, drinking out of bottles, laughing, scraping their feet on the floor. A stout girl with red cheeks and plump white arms moved contentedly among them, carrying away empty bottles, bringing back full ones, taking the money to a grim old woman with a grey face and eyes like bits of jet, who stared carefully at each coin, fingered it with her grey hands and dropped it reluctantly into the cash drawer. In the corner sat Sergeant Olster with a flush on his face, and the corporal who had been on the Red Sox outfield and another sergeant, a big man with black hair and a black mustache. About them clustered, with approbation and respect in their faces, Fuselli, Bill Grey and Meadville the cowboy, and Earl Williams, the blue-eyed and yellow-haired drug-clerk.

"O the Yanks are having the hell of a time, Parley voo?"

They pounded their bottles on the table in time to the song.

"It's a good job," the top sergeant said, suddenly interrupting the song. "You needn't worry about that, fellers. I saw to it that we got a good job.... And about getting to the front, you needn't worry about that. We'll all get to the front soon enough.... Tell me-this war is going to last ten years."

"I guess we'll all be generals by that time, eh, Sarge?" said Williams. "But, man, I wish I was back jerkin' soda water."

"It's a great life if you don't weaken," murmured Fuselli automatically.

"But I'm beginnin' to weaken," said Williams. "Man, I'm homesick. I don't care who knows it. I wish I could get to the front and be done with it."

"Say, have a heart. You need a drink," said the top sergeant, banging his fist on the table. "Say, mamselle, mame shows, mame shows!"

"I didn't know you could talk French, Sarge," said Fuselli.

"French, hell!" said the top sergeant. "Williams is the boy can talk French."

"Voulay vous couchay aveck moy.... That's all I know."

Everybody laughed.

"Hey, mamzelle," cried the top sergeant. "Voulay vous couchay aveck moy? We We, champagne." Everybody laughed, uproariously.

The girl slapped his head good-naturedly.

At that moment a man stamped noisily into the cafe, a tall broad-shouldered man in a loose English tunic, who had a swinging swagger that made the glasses ring on all the tables. He was humming under his breath and there was a grin on his broad red face. He went up to the girl and pretended to kiss her, and she laughed and talked familiarly with him in French.

"There's wild Dan Cohan," said the dark-haired sergeant. "Say, Dan, Dan."

"Here, yer honor."

"Come over and have a drink. We're going to have some fizzy."

"Never known to refuse."

They made room for him on the bench.

"Well, I'm confined to barracks," said Dan Cohan. "Look at me!" He laughed and gave his head a curious swift jerk to one side. "Compree?"

"Ain't ye scared they'll nab you?" said Fuselli.

"Nab me, hell, they can't do nothin' to me. I've had three court-martials already and they're gettin' a fourth up on me."

Dan Cohan pushed his head to one side and laughed. "I got a friend. My old boss is captain, and he's goin' to fix it up. I used to alley around politics chez moy. Compree?"

The champagne came and Dan Cohan popped the cork up to the ceiling with dexterous red fingers.

"I was just wondering who was going to give me a drink," he said. "Ain't had any pay since Christ was a corporal. I've forgotten what it looks like."

The champagne fizzed into the beer-glasses.

"This is the life," said Fuselli.

"Ye're damn right, buddy, if yer don't let them ride yer," said Dan.

"What they got yer up for now, Dan?"

"Murder."

"Murder, hell! How's that?"

"That is, if that bloke dies."

"The hell you say!"

"It all started by that goddam convoy down from Nantes...Bill Rees an' me.... They called us the shock troops.-Hy! Marie! Ancore champagne, beaucoup.-I was in the Ambulance service then. God knows what rotten service I'm in now.... Our section was on repo and they sent some of us fellers down to Nantes to fetch a convoy of cars back to Sandrecourt. We started out like regular racers, just the chassis, savey? Bill Rees an' me was the goddam tail of the peerade. An' the loot was a hell of a blockhead that didn't know if he was coming or going."

"Where the hell's Nantes?" asked the top sergeant, as if it had just slipped his mind.

"On the coast," answered Fuselli. "I seen it on the map."

"Nantes's way off to hell and gone anyway," said wild Dan Cohan, taking a gulp of champagne that he held in his mouth a moment, making his mouth move like a cow ruminating.

"An' as Bill Rees an' me was the tail of the peerade an' there was lots of cafes and little gin-mills, Bill Rees an' me'd stop off every now and then to have a little drink an' say 'Bonjour' to the girls an' talk to the people, an' then we'd go like a bat out of hell to catch up. Well, I don't know if we went too fast for 'em or if they lost the road or what, but we never saw that goddam convoy from the time we went out of Nantes. Then we thought we might as well see a bit of the country, compree?... An' we did, goddam it.... We landed up in Orleans, soused to the gills and without any gas an' with an M. P; climbing up on the dashboard."

"Did they nab you, then?"

"Not a bit of it," said wild Dan Cohen, jerking his head to one side. "They gave us gas and commutation of rations an' told us to go on in the mornin'. You see we put up a good line of talk, compree?... Well, we went to the swankiest restaurant.... You see we had on those bloody British uniforms they gave us when the O. D. gave out, an' the M. P.'s didn't know just what sort o' birds we were. So we went and ordered up a regular meal an' lots o' vin rouge an' vin blank an' drank a few cognacs an' before we knew it we were eating dinner with two captains and a sergeant. One o' the captains was the drunkest man I ever did see.... Good kid! We all had dinner and Bill Rees says, 'Let's go for a joy-ride.' An' the captains says, 'Fine,' and the sergeant would have said, 'Fine,' but he was so goggle-eyed drunk he couldn't. An' we started off!... Say, fellers, I'm dry as hell! Let's order up another bottle."

"Sure," said everyone.

"Ban swar, ma cherie,

Comment allez vous?"

"Encore champagne, Marie, gentille!"

"Well," he went on, "we went like a bat out of hell along a good state road, and it was all fine until one of the captains thought we ought to have a race. We did.... Compree? The flivvers flivved all right, but the hell of it was we got so excited about the race we forgot about the sergeant an' he fell off an' nobody missed him. An' at last we all pull up before a gin-mill an' one captain says, 'Where's the sergeant?' an' the other captain says there hadn't been no sergeant. An' we all had a drink on that. An' one captain kept sayin', 'It's all imagination. Never was a sergeant. I wouldn't associate with a sergeant, would I, lootenant?' He kept on calling me lootenant.... Well that was how they got

this new charge against me. Somebody picked up the sergeant an' he got concussion o' the brain an' there's hell to pay, an' if the poor buggar croaks.... I'm it.... Compree? About that time the captains start wantin' to go to Paris, an' we said we'd take 'em, an' so we put all the gas in my car an' the four of us climbed on that goddam chassis an' off we went like a bat out of hell! It'ld all have been fine if I wasn't lookin' cross-eyed.... We piled up in about two minutes on one of those nice little stone piles an' there we were. We all got up an' one o' the captains had his arm broke, an' there was hell to pay, worse than losing the sergeant. So we walked on down the road. I don't know how it got to be daylight. But we got to some hell of a town or other an' there was two M. P.'s all ready to meet us.... Compree?... Well, we didn't mess around with them captains. We just lit off down a side street an' got into a little cafe an' went in back an' had a hell of a lot o' cafe o' lay. That made us feel sort o' good an' I says to Bill, 'Bill, we've got to get to headquarters an' tell 'em that we accidentally smashed up our car, before the M. P.'s get busy.' An' he says, 'You're goddamned right,' an' at that minute I sees an M. P. through a crack in the door comin' into the cafe. We lit out into the garden and made for the wall. We got over that, although we left a good piece of my pants in the broken glass. But the hell of it was the M. P.'s got over too an' they had their pop-guns out. An' the last I saw of Bill Rees was-there was a big fat woman in a pink dress washing clothes in a big tub, an' poor ole Bill Rees runs head on into her an' over they both goes into the washtub. The M. P.'s got him all right. That's how I got away. An' the last I saw of Bill Rees he was squirming about on top of the washtub like he was swimmin', an' the fat woman was sittin' on the ground shaking her fist at him. Bill Rees was the best buddy I ever had."

He paused and poured the rest of the champagne in his glass and wiped the sweat off his face with his big red hand.

"You ain't stringin' us, are you?" asked Fuselli.

"You just ask Lieutenant Whitehead, who's defending me in the court-martial, if I'm stringin' yer. I been in the ring, kid, and you can bet your bottom dollar that a man's been in the ring'll tell the truth."

"Go on, Dan," said the sergeant.

"An' I never heard a word about Bill Rees since. I guess they got him into the trenches and made short work of him."

Dan Cohan paused to light a cigarette.

"Well, one o' the M. P.'s follows after me and starts shootin'. An' don't you believe I ran. Gee, I was scared! But I was in luck 'cause a Frenchman had just started his camion an' I jumped in and said the gendarmes were after me. He was white, that frog was. He shot the juice into her an' went off like a bat out of hell an' there was a hell of a lot of traffic on the road because there was some damn-fool attack or other goin' on. So I got up to Paris.... An' then it'ld all have been fine if I hadn't met up with a Jane I knew. I still had five hundred francs on me, an' so we raised hell until one day we was havin' dinner in the cafe de Paris, both of us sort of jagged up, an' we didn't have enough money to pay the bill an' Janey made a run for it, but an M. P. got me an' then there was hell to pay.... Compree? They put me in the Bastille, great place.... Then they shipped me off to some damn camp or other an' gave me a gun an' made me drill for a week an' then they packed a whole gang of us, all A. W. O. L's, into a train for the front. That was nearly the end of little Daniel again. But when we was in Vitry-le-Francois, I chucked my rifle out of one window and jumped out of the other an' got on a train back to Paris an' went an' reported to headquarters how I'd smashed the car an' been in the Bastille an' all, an' they were sore as hell at the M. P.'s an' sent me out to a section an' all went fine until I got ordered back an' had to alley down to this goddam camp. Ah' now I don't know what they're goin' to do to me."

"Gee whiz!"

"It's a great war, I tell you, Sarge. It's a great war. I wouldn't have missed it."

Across the room someone was singing.

"Let's drown 'em out," said the top sergeant boisterously.

"O Mademerselle from Armenteers,

Parley voo?"

"Well, I've got to get the hell out of here," said wild Dan Cohan, after a minute. "I've got a Jane waitin' for me. I'm all fixed up,... Compree?"

He swaggered out singing:

"Bon soir, ma cherie,

Comment alley vous?

Si vous voulez

Couche avec moi...."

The door slammed behind him, leaving the cafe quiet.

Many men had left. Madame had taken up her knitting and Marie of the plump white arms sat beside her, leaning her head back among the bottles that rose in tiers behind the bars.

Fuselli was staring at a door on one side of the bar. Men kept opening it and looking in and closing it again with a peculiar expression on their faces. Now and then someone would open it with a smile and go into the next room, shuffling his feet and closing the door carefully behind him.

"Say, I wonder what they've got there," said the top sergeant, who had been staring at the door. "Mush be looked into, mush be looked into," he added, laughing drunkenly.

"I dunno," said Fuselli. The champagne was humming in his head like a fly against a window pane. He felt very bold and important.

The top sergeant got to his feet unsteadily.

"Corporal, take charge of the colors," he said, and walked to the door. He opened it a little, peeked in; winked elaborately to his friends and skipped into the other room, closing the door carefully behind him.

The corporal went over next. He said, "Well, I'll be damned," and walked straight in, leaving the door ajar. In a moment it was closed from the inside.

"Come on, Bill, let's see what the hell they got in there," said Fuselli.

"All right, old kid," said Bill Grey. They went together over to the door. Fuselli opened it and looked in. He let out a breath through his teeth with a faint whistling sound.

"Gee, come in, Bill," he said, giggling.

The room was small, nearly filled up by a dining table with a red cloth. On the mantel above the empty fireplace were candlesticks with dangling crystals that glittered red and yellow and purple in the lamplight, in front of a cracked mirror that seemed a window into another dingier room. The paper was peeling off the damp walls, giving a mortuary smell of mildewed plaster that not even the reek of beer and tobacco had done away with.

"Look at her, Bill, ain't she got style?" whispered Fuselli.

Bill Grey grunted.

"Say, d'ye think the Jane that feller was tellin' us he raised hell with in Paris was like that?"

At the end of the table, leaning on her elbows, was a woman with black frizzy hair cut short, that stuck out from her head in all directions. Her eyes were dark and her lips red with a faint swollen look. She looked with a certain defiance at the men who stood about the walls and sat at the table.

The men stared at her silently. A big man with red hair and a heavy jaw who sat next her kept edging up nearer. Someone knocked against the table making the bottles and liqueur glasses clustered in the center jingle.

"She ain't clean; she's got bobbed hair," said the man next Fuselli.

The woman said something in French.

Only one man understood it. His laugh rang hollowly in the silent room and stopped suddenly.

The woman looked attentively at the faces round her for a moment, shrugged her shoulders, and began straightening the ribbon on the hat she held on her lap.

"How the hell did she get here? I thought the M. P.'s ran them out of town the minute they got here," said one man.

The woman continued plucking at her hat.

"You venay Paris?" said a boy with a soft voice who sat near her. He had blue eyes and a milky complexion, faintly tanned, that went strangely with the rough red and brown faces in the room.

"Oui; de Paris," she said after a pause, glancing suddenly in the boy's face.

"She's a liar, I can tell you that," said the red-haired man, who by this time had moved his chair very close to the woman's.

"You told him you came from Marseilles, and him you came from Lyon," said the boy with the milky complexion, smiling genially. "Vraiment de ou venay vous?"

"I come from everywhere," she said, and tossed the hair back from her face.

"Travelled a lot?" asked the boy again.

"A feller told me," said Fuselli to Bill Grey, "that he'd talked to a girl like that who'd been to Turkey an' Egypt I bet that girl's seen some life."

The woman jumped to her feet suddenly screaming with rage. The man with the red hair moved away sheepishly. Then he lifted his large dirty hands in the air.

"Kamarad," he said.

Nobody laughed. The room was silent except for feet scraping occasionally on the floor.

She put her hat on and took a little box from the chain bag in her lap and began powdering her face, making faces into the mirror she held in the palm of her hand.

The men stared at her.

"Guess she thinks she's the Queen of the May," said one man, getting to his feet. He leaned across the table and spat into the fireplace. "I'm going back to barracks." He turned to the woman and shouted in a voice full of hatred, "Bon swar."

The woman was putting the powder puff away in her jet bag. She did not look up; the door closed sharply.

"Come along," said the woman, suddenly, tossing her head back. "Come along one at a time; who go with me first?"

Nobody spoke. The men stared at her silently. There was no sound except that of feet scraping occasionally on the floor.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares