'WE had succeeded, my friend B. and I, in dispensing with almost three of our six months' engagement as Conducteurs Volontaires, Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un,. Ambulance Norton Harjes, Croix Rouge Américaine, 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 chef de 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 chef's knowledge of the French language, obtained during several years' heroic service, consisted for the most part in 'Sar var,' 'Sar marche,' 'Deet donk moan vieux') confined his efforts to denying us the privilege of acting as conducteurs, 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 Héroïque.
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 spic 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 chef 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 whose disposition had felt the effects of the 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 every one in the section bad been given his permission de sept jours---even two men who had arrived later than we and whose turn should subsequently have come after ours. I also knew that at the headquarters of the Ambulance, 7 rue François premier, se trouvait Monsieur Norton, thesupreme 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 per-mission. 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 halfway. 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'Allez avec lui, chercher ses affaires, de suite.'
My affaires were mostly in the vicinity of the cuisine, where lodged the cuisinier, mécanicien, menuisier, 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 scrutinized 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 to-morrow,'
---'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 carburetter 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 Américains that I knew---3 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 some one 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-à-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 Sûreté de Noyon.'
Not in the least realizing what this might mean, I grinned. A responsive grin, visiting informally the tired cheeks of my confrère, ended by frankly connecting his worthy and enormous ears which were squeezed into oblivion by the oversize casque. My eyes, jumping from those cars, 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 beard 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 naïveté 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.
'GOOD-NIGHT. 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 commended-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 --and, oh yes; it seems that the Head Cop has particularly requested the pleasure of this distinguished American's company at déjeuner.
'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.
'Vous avez faim?'
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 led 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.
'Pourquoi qu'il est ici?' 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. Every one 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 santé 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.
'Cest un Américain,' 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 favour 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 re-entered, t-d was roaring to himself. I read the journal through again. It must be 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 de Ministre was just around the corner, as it proved. Before the door stood the patient F.I.A.T. It 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-à-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 Say-u-deux m-ee-n-zhay-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 favourable impression in the case of the rosette, who murmured: 'Un ami de son père, 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 père was a holy man. At last Monsieur told the moustache to write, Protestant; and the moustache obediently did so.
From this point 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 volontaire, embarking for France shortly after, about the middle of April.
Monsieur asked: 'You met B---- on the pacquebot?' 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 rigolo, 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 confrères.
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 moustache seemed amused. Monsieur le Ministre de Sûreté 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 as 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 sections sanitaires 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 motor-cycle. (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 moustache: '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 détestez 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 oui's 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 français.'
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 cheerfully.
'You do not believe?'
'Ça se 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, for ever 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 book-case 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 coquille: where did I get it?---I said a French soldier gave it to me as a souvenir.---And several têtes 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 Crois Rouge. 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 bedroll, 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 will 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 t . . d.
I have a sneaking mania for wood-cuts, particularly when used to illustrate the indispensable psychological crisis of some out-worn 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 goatskins, 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, mottoes, 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 back-bone 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: 'Mes dernières adieux à ma femme aimée, Gaby.' A fierce hand, totally distinct from the former, wrote in proud letters above: 'Tombé pour désert. Six ans de prison---dégradation militaire.'
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 chocolat with extreme and surly caution. I say 'Merci' and seize chocolat. 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 Pétrouchka, Pétrouchka, which we saw in Paris at the Châtelet, 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 chocolat 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 mouldily mouldering molish voice, suggesting putrefying 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 mouldered.
Klang!---and says the t-c 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 face's 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 contents.
I induce two fingers to penetrate the seal. They bring me up a flat sliver of choux 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 Ça 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 Ça Pue in such cases. Having finished, panting with stink, I stumble on the bed and consider my next move.
The straw will do. Ouch, but it's Dirty.---Several hours elapse ...
Stepsandfurmble. 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.' Klangandfootsteps.
So I took matches, burnt, and with just 60 of them wrote the first stanza of a ballad. To-morrow I will write the second. Day after to-morrow the third. Next day the refrain. After--oh, well.
My whistling of Pétrouchka brought no response this evening.
So I climbed on Ça 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 Ça 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 Ça 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.'
Every one very sore about me. Je m'en fous pas mal, 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 unsignificant 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 pork-like 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 lb. 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.'
'Je m'en fous de ta canne,' 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 foule 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-coloured.) 'En Amérique on ne fait pas comme ça!
This haughty inaccuracy produced an astonishing effect, namely, the prestidigitatorial vanishment of the v-f-g. The v-f-g's numerous confrères 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 great oak-branch in his raised hand, slithering opprobria and mostly crying: 'Is that huge piece of wood what you call a cane? Is it? 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 Hurry HurryHurryHurryHurryHurryHurry . . . 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 the 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 yoo 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 waterproof 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 pièce de résistance, the other.
The engine got under way after several feints; which pleased the Germans so that they sent seven 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 bidon, 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 couteau.
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 lay-out, 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 be 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, là-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 caoutchouc for a great while, in order to make me an imperméable. 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 honour, but if you could---I should be overcome.. .'
Tears (for some strange reason) came into my eyes.
He handled his picture sacredly, criticized 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 bidon 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 wishes 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 stumbled 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 stretchings 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; then 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 leapt 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 led 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.
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 are 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 l'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 clamour at my bars. 'Quelque chose à boire, s'il vous plait.' 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 re-locking 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. Quatre heures.' 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 chocolat, saying (but with a tolerable grimness): 'Vous en aurez besoin, croyez-moi.' 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 sûr.'---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 permissionnaires cursing wearily or joking hopelessly with one another or stalking back and forth with imprecatory gesticulations. 'C'est d'la blague. Sais-tu, il n'y a plus de trains?---'Le conducteur est mort, j'connais sa sur.'---'J'suis foutu, mon vieux!'---'Nous sommes tous perdus, dis-donc.'---Quelle heure?'---'Mon cher, il n'y a plus d'heures, le gouvernement français les défend.' Suddenly burst out of the loquacious opacity of dozen handfuls of Algériens, 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 farm-house hard by, which farm-house 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, swooped 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 movements 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 cautiously 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 Frenchwomen 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 française 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 français 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 voilà. My guards awoke and yawned pretentiously. Lest I should think they had dozed off. It is Paris.
Some permissionnaires 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 enfin.
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 métro, it was closed. We should take a car. It would bring us to the other Gare 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, 'Vingt 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 défendu.' 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 fiacre?' I merely looked at him. 'If you wish to call a fiacre, 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.'
'S'il vous plait,' was all I found to reply to this eloquence.
Several fiacres libres 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 cocher knew where the Gare was. 'Laquelle?' demanded the cocher angrily. And when he was told'Naturellement, je connais, pourquoi pas?' 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 horse's 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 cochers remark to Paris fiacre-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 démarche of the midinette. They hold themselves differently. They have even a little bold colour 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 deux sous, 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 humour involved; though his dignity did not permit a visible acknowledgment thereof.
Madame la vendeuse de café, 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, me promener sans 150-odd pounds of baggage. We set out.
As we walked easily and leisurely the by this time well-peopled rues 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 vigour, 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 d'la blague, tu sais? Moi, je connais la sur 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? Ça m'est égal, parce qu'il n'y a plus d'heures---le gouvernement français les défend.'
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.
Everything was blague. The cocher, the café, the police, the morning, and least and last the excellent French government.
We had walked for a half-hour or more. My guide and protector now inquired of an ouvrier the location of the boucheries. 'There is one right in front of you,' he was told. Sure enough, not a block away. I laughed again. It was eight years all right.
The older bought a great many things in the next five minutes: saucisse, fromage, pain, chocolat, pinard rouge. A bourgeoise with an unagreeable face and suspicion of me written in headlines all over her mouth served us with quick hard laconicisms of movement. I hated her and consequently refused my captor's advice to buy a little of everything (on the ground that it would be a long time till the next meal), contenting myself with a cake of chocolate---rather bad chocolate, but nothing to what I was due to eat during the next three months. Then we retraced our steps, arriving at the station after several mistakes and inquiries, to find the younger faithfully keeping guard over my two sacs and overcoat.
The older and I sat down, and the younger took his turn at promenading. I got up to buy a Fantasio at the stand ten steps away, and the older jumped up and escorted me to and from it. I think I asked him what he would read? and he said 'Nothing.' Maybe I bought him a journal. So we waited, eyed by every one in the Gare, laughed at by the officers and their marraines, pointed at by sinewy dames and decrepit bonshommes---the centre of amusement for the whole station. In spite of my reading I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Would it never be Twelve? Here comes the younger, neat as a pin, looking fairly sterilized. He sits down on my left. Watches are ostentatiously consulted. It is time. En avant. I sling myself under my bags.
'Where are we going now?' I asked the older. Curling the tips of his moustachios, he replied 'Mah-say.'
Marseilles! I was happy once more. I had always wanted to go to that great port of the Mediterranean, where one has new colours and strange customs, and where the people sing when they talk. But how extraordinary to have come to Paris---and what a trip lay before us. I was muddled about the whole thing. Probably I was to be deported. But why from Marseilles? Where was Marseilles, anyway? I was probably all wrong about its location. Who cared, after all? At least we were leaving the pointings and the sneers and the half-suppressed titters....
Two fat and respectable bonshommes, the two gendarmes, and I, made up one compartment. The former talked an animated stream, the guards and I were on the whole silent. I watched the liquidating landscape and dozed happily. The gendarmes dozed, one at each door. The train rushed lazily across the earth, between farmhouses, into fields, along woods ... the sunlight smacked my eye and cuffed my sleepy mind with colour.
I was awakened by a noise of eating. My protectors, knife in hand, were consuming their meat and bread, occasionally tilting their bidons on high and absorbing the thin streams which spurted therefrom. I tried a little chocolat. The bonshommes were already busy with their repast. The older gendarme watched me chewing away at the chocolat, then commanded, 'Take some bread.' This astonished me, I confess, beyond anything which had heretofore occurred. I gazed mutely at him, wondering whether the gouvernement français had made away with his wits. He had relaxed amazingly: his cap lay beside him, his tunic was unbuttoned, he slouched in a completely undisciplined posture---his face seemed to have been changed for a peasant's, it was almost open in expression and almost completely at ease. I seized the offered hunk and chewed vigorously on it. Bread was bread. The older appeared pleased with my appetite; his face softened, still more, as he remarked: 'Bread without wine doesn't taste good,' and proffered his bidon. I drank as much as I dared, and thanked him---, 'Ça va mieux.' The pinard went straight to my brain, I felt my mind cuddled by a pleasant warmth, my thoughts became invested with a great contentment. The train stopped; and the younger sprang out carrying the empty bidons of himself and his confrère. When they and he returned, I enjoyed another coup. From that moment till we reached our destination at about eight o'clock the older and I got on extraordinarily well. When the gentlemen descended at their station he waxed almost familiar. I was in excellent spirits; rather drunk; extremely tired. Now that the two guardians and myself were alone in the compartment, the curiosity which had hitherto been stifled by etiquette and pride of capture came rapidly to light. 'Why was I here, anyway? I seemed well enough to them.---Because my friend had written some letters, I told them.---But I had done nothing myself?---I explained that nous étions toujours ensemble, mon ami et moi; that was the only reason which I knew of.---It was very funny to see how this explanation improved matters. The older in particular was immensely relieved.---I would without doubt, he said, be set free immediately upon my arrival. The French Government didn't keep people like me in prison.---They fired some questions about America at me, to which I imaginatively replied. I think I told the younger that the average height of buildings in America was nine hundred metres. He stared and shook his head doubtfully, but I convinced him in the end. Then in my turn I asked questions, the first being: Where was my friend?---It seems that my friend had left Gré (or whatever it was) the morning of the day I had entered it.---Did they know where my friend was going?---They couldn't say. They had been told that he was very dangerous.---So we talked on and on: How long had I studied French? I spoke very well. Was it hard to learn English?
Yet when I climbed out to relieve myself by the roadside one of them was at my heels.
Finally watches were consulted, tunics buttoned, hats donned. I was told in a gruff voice to prepare myself; that we were approaching the end of our journey. Looking at the erstwhile participants in conversation, I scarcely knew them. They had put on with their caps a positive ferocity of bearing. I began to think that I had dreamed the incidents of the preceding hours.
We descended at a minute, dirty station which possessed the air of having been dropped by mistake from the bung of the gouvernement français. The older sought out the station-master, who having nothing to do was taking a siesta in a miniature waiting-room. The general countenance of the place was exceedingly depressing; but I attempted to keep up my spirits with the reflection that after all this was but a junction, and that from here we were to take a train for Marseilles herself. The name of the station, Briouse, I found somewhat dreary. And now the older returned with the news that our train wasn't running to-day, and that the next train didn't arrive till early morning, and should we walk? I could check my great sac and overcoat. The small sac I should carry along---it was only a step, after all.
With a glance at the desolation of Briouse, I agreed to the stroll. It was a fine night for a little promenade; not too cool, and with a promise of a moon stuck into the sky. The sac and coat were accordingly checked by the older; the station-master glanced at me and haughtily grunted (having learned that I was an American); and my protectors and I set out.
I insisted that we stop at the first café and have some wine on me. To this my escorts agreed, making me go ten paces ahead of them, and waiting until I was through before stepping up to the bar---not from politeness, to be sure, but because (as I soon gathered) gendarmes were not any too popular in this part of the world, and the sight of two gendarmes with a prisoner might inspire the habitués to attempt a rescue. Furthermore, on leaving the café (a desolate place if I ever saw one, with a fearful patronne) I was instructed sharply to keep close to them but on no account to place myself between them, there being sundry villagers to be encountered before we struck the high-road to Marseilles. Thanks to their forethought and my obedience the rescue did not take place, nor did our party excite even the curiosity of the scarce and soggy inhabitants of the unlovely town of Briouse.
The high road won, all of us relaxed considerably. The sac full of suspicious letters which I bore on my shoulder was not so light as I had thought, but the kick of the Briouse pinard thrust me forward at a good clip. The road was absolutely deserted; the night hung loosely around it, here and there tattered by attempting moonbeams. I was somewhat sorry to find the way hilly, and in places bad underfoot; yet the unknown adventure lying before me, and the delicious silence of the night (in which our words rattled queerly like tin soldiers in a plush-lined box) boosted me into a condition of mysterious happiness. We talked, the older and I, of strange subjects. As I suspected, he had been not always a gendarme. He had seen service among the Arabs. He had always liked languages and had picked up Arabian with great ease---of this he was very proud. For instance---the Arabian way of saying 'Give me to eat' was this; when you wanted wine you said so and so; 'Nice day' was something else. He thought I could pick it up inasmuch as I had done so creditably with French. He was absolutely certain that English was much easier to learn than French, and would not be moved. Now what was the American language like? I explained that it was a sort of Argot-English. When I gave him some phrases he was astonished---'It sounds like English!' he cried, and retailed his stock of English phrases for my approval. I tried hard to get his intonation of the Arabian, and he helped me on the difficult sounds. America must be a strange place, he thought....
After two hours' walking, he called a halt, bidding us rest. We all lay flat on the grass by the roadside. The moon was still battling with clouds. The darkness of the fields on either side was total. I crawled on hands and knees to the sound of silver-trickling water and found a little spring-fed stream. Prone, weight on elbows, I drank heavily of its perfect blackness. It was icy, talkative, minutely alive.
The older presently gave a perfunctory 'alors'; we got up; I hoisted my suspicious utterances upon my shoulder, which recognized the renewal of hostilities with a neuralgic throb. I banged forward with bigger and bigger feet. A bird, scared, swooped almost into my face. Occasionally some night-noise pricked a futile minute hole in the enormous curtain of soggy darkness. Uphill now. Every muscle thoroughly aching, head spinning, I half-straightened my no longer obedient body; and jumped: face to face with a little wooden man hanging all by itself in a grove of low trees.
The wooden body clumsy with pain burst into fragile legs with absurdly large feet and funny writhing toes; its little stiff arms made abrupt, cruel, equal angles with the road. About its stunted loins clung a ponderous and jocular fragment of drapery. On one terribly brittle shoulder the droll lump of its neckless head ridiculously lived. There was in this complete silent doll a gruesome truth of instinct, a success of uncanny poignancy, an unearthly ferocity of rectangular emotion.
For perhaps a minute the almost obliterated face and mine eyed one another in the silence of intolerable autumn.
Who was this wooden man? Like a sharp, black, mechanical cry in the spongy organism of gloom stood the coarse and sudden sculpture of his torment; the big mouth of night carefully spurted the angular actual language of his martyred body. I had seen him before in the dream of some mediæval saint with a thief sagging at either side, surrounded with crisp angels. To-night he was alone; save for myself, and the moon's minute flower pushing between slabs of fractured cloud.
I was wrong, the moon and I and he were not alone. ... A glance up the road gave me two silhouettes at pause. The gendarmes were waiting. I must hurry to catch up or incur suspicion by my sloth. I hastened forward, with a last look over my shoulder ... the wooden man was watching us.
When I came abreast of them, expecting abuse, I was surprised by the older's saying quietly, 'We haven't far to go,' and plunging forward imperturbably into the night.
Nor had we gone a half-hour before several dark squat forms confronted us: houses. I decided that I did not like houses---particularly as now my guardians' manner abruptly changed; once more tunics were buttoned, holsters adjusted, and myself directed to walk between and keep always up with the others. Now the road became thoroughly afflicted with houses, houses not however so large and lively as I had expected from my dreams of Marseilles. Indeed we seemed to be entering an extremely small and rather disagreeable town. I ventured to ask what its name was. 'Mah-say' was the response. By this I was fairly puzzled. However, the street led us to a square, and I saw the towers of a church sitting in the sky; between them the round, yellow, big moon looked immensely and peacefully conscious ... no one was stirring in the little streets, all the houses were keeping the moon's secret.
We walked on.
I was too tired to think. I merely felt the town as a unique unreality. What was it? I knew-the moon's picture of a town. These streets with their houses did not exist, they were but a ludicrous projection of the moon's sumptuous personality. This was a city of Pretend, created by the hypnotism of moonlight.---Yet when I examined the moon she too seemed but a painting of a moon, and the sky in which she lived a fragile echo of colour. If I blew hard the whole shy mechanism would collapse gently with a neat, soundless crash. I must not, or lose all.
We turned a corner, then another. My guides conferred concerning the location of something, I couldn't make out what. Then the older nodded in the direction of a long, dull, dirty mass not a hundred yards away, which (as near as I could see) served either as a church or a tomb. Toward this we turned. All too soon I made out its entirely dismal exterior. Grey, long, stone walls, surrounded on the street side by a fence of ample proportions and uniformly dull colour. Now I perceived that we made toward a gate, singularly narrow and forbidding, in the grey, long wall. No living soul appeared to inhabit this desolation.
The older rang at the gate. A gendarme with a revolver answered his ring; and presently he was admitted, leaving the younger and myself to wait. And now I began to realize that this was the gendarmerie of the town, into which for safe-keeping I was presently to be inducted for the night. My heart sank, I confess, at the thought of sleeping in the company of that species of humanity which I had come to detest beyond anything in hell or on earth. Meanwhile the doorman had returned with the older, and I was bidden roughly enough to pick up my baggage and march. I followed my guides down a corridor, up a staircase, and into a dark, small room where a candle was burning. Dazzled by the light and dizzied by the fatigue of my ten- or twelve-mile stroll, I let my baggage go; and leaned against a convenient wall, trying to determine who was now my tormentor.
Facing me at a table stood a man of about my own height, and as I should judge about forty years old. His face was seedy, sallow and long. He had bushy, semicircular eyebrows which drooped so much as to reduce his eyes to mere blinking slits. His cheeks were so furrowed that they leaned inward. He had no nose, properly speaking, but a large beak of preposterous widthlessness, which gave his whole face the expression of falling gravely downstairs, and quite obliterated the unimportant chin. His mouth was made of two long uncertain lips which twitched nervously. His cropped black hair was rumpled, his blouse, from which hung a croix-de-guerre, unbuttoned; and his unputteed shanks culminated in bedslippers. In physique he reminded me a little of Ichabod Crane. His neck was exactly like a hen's: I felt sure that when he drank he must tilt his head back as hens do in order that the liquid may run down their throats. But his method of keeping himself upright, together with certain spasmodic contractions of his fingers and the nervous 'uh-ah, uh-ah,' which punctuated his insecure phrases like uncertain commas, combined to offer the suggestion of a rooster; a rather moth-eaten rooster, which took itself tremendously seriously and was showing-off to an imaginary group of admiring hens situated somewhere in the background of his consciousness.
'Vous êtes uh-ah l'am-é-ri-cain?'
'Je suis américain,' I admitted.
'Eh-bi-en uh-ah uh-ah---We were expecting you.' He surveyed me with great interest.
Behind this seedy and restless personage I noted his absolute likeness, adorning one of the walls. The rooster was faithfully depicted à la Rembrandt at half-length in the stirring guise of a fencer, foil in band, and wearing enormous gloves. The execution of this masterpiece left something to be desired; but the whole betokened a certain spirit and verve, on the part of the sitter, which I found difficulty in attributing to the being before me.
'Vous êtes uh-ah KEW-MANGZ?'
"What?' I said, completely baffled by this extraordinary dissyllable.
'Comprenez vous fran-çais?'
'Bon. Alors, vous vous ap-pel-lez KEW-MANGZ, n'est-ce-pas? Edrouard KEW-MANGZ.'
'Oh,' I said, relieved, 'yes.' It was really amazing, the way he writhed around the G.
'Comment ça se prononce en anglais?'
I told him.
He replied benevolently, somewhat troubled, 'uh-ah uh-ah uh-ah---Pour-quoi êtes vous ici, KEW-MANGS?
At this question I was for one moment angrier than I had ever before been in all my life. Then I realized the absurdity of the situation, and laughed.----'Sais pas."
The questionnaire continued:
'You were in the Red Cross?'---'Surely, in the Norton Harjes Ambulance, Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un.'--
'You had a friend there,?'---'Naturally.'---'Il a écrit, votre ami des bê-tises, n'est-ce-pas?'---'So they told me. N'en sais rien.'---'What sort of a person was your friend?'---'He was a magnificent person, always très gentil with me.' --- (With a queer pucker the fencer remarked) 'Your friend got you into a lot of trouble though.'--- (To which I replied with a broad grin) 'N'importe, we are camarades.'
A stream of puzzled uh-ahs followed this reply. The fencer or rooster or whatever he might be finally, picking up the lamp and the lock, said: 'Alors, viens avec moi, KEW-MANGS.' I started to pick up the sac, but be told me it would be kept in the office (we being in the office). I said I had checked a large sac and my fur overcoat at Briouse, and he assured me they would be sent on by train. He now dismissed the gendarmes, who had been listening curiously to the examination. As I was conducted from the bureau I asked him point-blank: 'How long am I to stay here?'---to, which he answered, 'Oh, peut-être un jour, deux jours, je ne sais pas.'
Two days in a gendarmerie would be enough, I thought. We marched out.
Behind me the bed-slippered rooster uh-ahingly shuffled. In front of me clumsily gambolled the huge imitation of myself. It descended the terribly worn stairs. It turned to the right and disappeared....
We were standing in a chapel.
The shrinking light which my guide held had become suddenly minute; it was beating, senseless and futile, with shrill fists upon a thick enormous moisture of gloom. To the left and right through lean oblongs of stained glass burst dirty burglars of moonlight. The clammy, stupid distance uttered dimly an uncanny conflict-the mutterless tumbling of brutish shadows. A crowding ooze battled with my lungs. My nostrils fought against the monstrous atmospheric slime which hugged a sweet unpleasant odour. Staring ahead, I gradually disinterred the pale carrion of the darkness---an altar, guarded with the ugliness of unlit candles, on which stood inexorably the efficient implements for eating God.
I was to be confessed, then, of my guilty conscience, before retiring? It boded well for the morrow.
... the measured accents of the fencer said: 'Prenez votre paillasse.' I turned. He was bending over a formless mass in one comer of the room. The mass stretched halfway to the ceiling. It was made of mattress-shapes. I pulled at one burlap, stuffed with prickly straw. I got it on my shoulder. 'Alors.' He lighted me to the doorway by which we had entered. (I was somewhat pleased to leave the place.)
Back, down a corridor, up more stairs; and we are confronted by a small scarred pair of doors from which hung two of the largest padlocks I had ever seen. Being unable to go further, I stopped; he produced a huge ring of keys. Fumbled with the locks. No sound of life: the keys rattled in the locks with surprising loudness; the latter with an evil grace yielded---the two little miserable doors swung open.
Into the square blackness I staggered with my paillasse. There was no way of judging the size of the dark room which uttered no sound. In front of me was a pillar. 'Put it down by that post, and sleep there for to-night, in the morning nous allons voir,' directed the fencer. 'You won't need a blanket,' he added; and the doors clanged, the light and fencer disappeared.
I needed no second invitation to sleep. Fully dressed, I fell on my paillasse with a weariness which I never felt before or since. But I did not close my eyes: for all about me there rose a sea of most extraordinary sound ... the hitherto empty and minute room became suddenly enormous: weird cries, oaths, laughter, pulling it sideways and backward, extending it to inconceivable depth and width, telescoping it to frightful nearness. From all directions, by at least thirty voices in eleven languages (I counted as I lay Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Turkish, Arabian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, German, French---and English) at distances varying from seventy feet to a few inches, for twenty minutes I was ferociously bombarded. Nor was my perplexity purely aural. About five minutes after lying down I saw (by a hitherto unnoticed speck of light which burned near the doors which I had entered) two extraordinary looking figures---one a well-set man with a big, black beard, the other a consumptive with a bald head and sickly moustache, both clad only in their knee-length chemises, hairy legs naked, feet bare---wander down the room and urinate profusely in the corner nearest me. This act accomplished, the figures wandered back, greeted with a volley of ejaculatory abuse from the invisible co-occupants of my new sleeping-apartment; and disappeared in darkness.
I remarked to myself that the gendarmes of this gendarmerie were peculiarly up in languages, and fell asleep.
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