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Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book Five: “Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On”


CLAUDE set off to find the Grand Hotel, where he had promised to dine with Victor Morse. The porter there spoke English. He called a red-headed boy in a dirty uniform and told him to take the American to vingt-quatre. The boy also spoke English. “Plenty money in New York, I guess! In France, no money.” He made their way, through musty corridors and up slippery staircases, as long as possible, shrewdly eyeing the visitor and rubbing his thumb nervously against his fingers all the while.

“Vingt-quatre, twen’y-four,” he announced, rapping at a door with one hand and suggestively opening the other. Claude put something into it—anything to be rid of him.

Victor was standing before the fireplace. “Hello, Wheeler, come in. Our dinner will be served up here. It’s big enough, isn’t it? I could get nothing between a coop, and this at fifteen dollars a day.”

The room was spacious enough for a banquet; with two huge beds, and great windows that swung in on hinges, like doors, and that had certainly not been washed since before the war. The heavy red cotton-brocade hangings and lace curtains were stiff with dust, the thick carpet was strewn with cigarette-ends and matches. Razor blades and “Khaki Comfort” boxes lay about on the dresser, and former occupants had left their autographs in the dust on the table. Officers slept there, and went away, and other officers arrived,—and the room remained the same, like a wood in which travellers camp for the night. The valet de chambre carried away only what he could use; discarded shirts and socks and old shoes. It seemed a rather dismal place to have a party.

When the waiter came, he dusted off the table with his apron and put on a clean cloth, napkins, and glasses. Victor and his guest sat down under an electric light bulb with a broken shade, around which a silent halo of flies moved unceasingly. They did not buzz, or dart aloft, or descend to try the soup, but hung there in the center of the room as if they were a part of the lighting system. The constant attendance of the waiter embarrassed Claude; he felt as if he were being watched.

“By the way,” said Victor while the soup plates were being removed, “what do you think of this wine? It cost me thirty francs the bottle.”

“It tastes very good to me,” Claude replied. “But then, it’s the first champagne I’ve ever drunk.”

“Really?” Victor drank off another glass and sighed. “I envy you. I wish I had it all to do over. Life’s too short, you know.”

“I should say you had made a good beginning. We’re a long way from Crystal Lake.”

“Not far enough.” His host reached across the table and filled Claude’s empty glass. “I sometimes waken up with the feeling I’m back there. Or I have bad dreams, and find myself sitting on that damned stool in the glass cage and can’t make my books balance; I hear the old man coughing in his private room, the way he coughs when he’s going to refuse a loan to some poor devil who needs it. I’ve had a narrow escape, Wheeler; as a brand from the burning. That’s all the Scripture I remember.”

The bright red spots on Victor’s cheeks, his pale forehead and brilliant eyes and saucy little moustaches seemed to give his quotation a peculiar vividness. Claude envied him. It must be great fun to take up a part and play it to a finish; to believe you were making yourself over, and to admire the kind of fellow you made. He, too, in a way, admired Victor,—though he couldn’t altogether believe in him.

“You’ll never go back,” he said, “I wouldn’t worry about that.”

“Take it from me, there are thousands who will never go back! I’m not speaking of the casualties. Some of you Americans are likely to discover the world this trip … and it’ll make the hell of a lot of difference! You boys never had a fair chance. There’s a conspiracy of Church and State to keep you down. I’m going off to play with some girls tonight, will you come along?”

Claude laughed. “I guess not.”

“Why not? You won’t be caught, I guarantee.”

“I guess not.” Claude spoke apologetically. “I’m going out to see Fanning after dinner.”

Victor shrugged. “That ass!” He beckoned the waiter to open another bottle and bring the coffee. “Well, it’s your last chance to go nutting with me.” He looked intently at Claude and lifted his glass. “To the future, and our next meeting!” When he put down his empty goblet he remarked, “I got a wire through today; I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“For London?”

“For Verdun.”

Claude took a quick breath. Verdun … the very sound of the name was grim, like the hollow roll of drums. Victor was going there tomorrow. Here one could take a train for Verdun, or thereabouts, as at home one took a train for Omaha. He felt more “over” than he had done before, and a little crackle of excitement went all through him. He tried to be careless:

“Then you won’t get to London soon?”

“God knows,” Victor answered gloomily. He looked up at the ceiling and began to whistle softly an engaging air. “Do you know that? It’s something Maisie often plays; ‘Roses of Picardy.’ You won’t know what a woman can be till you meet her, Wheeler.”

“I hope I’ll have that pleasure. I was wondering if you’d forgotten her for the moment. She doesn’t object to these diversions?”

Victor lifted his eyebrows in the old haughty way. “Women don’t require that sort of fidelity of the air service. Our engagements are too uncertain.”

Half an hour later Victor had gone in quest of amorous adventure, and Claude was wandering alone in a brightly lighted street full of soldiers and sailors of all nations. There were black Senegalese, and Highlanders in kilts, and little lorry-drivers from Siam,—all moving slowly along between rows of cabarets and cinema theatres. The wide-spreading branches of the plane trees met overhead, shutting out the sky and roofing in the orange glare. The sidewalks were crowded with chairs and little tables, at which marines and soldiers sat drinking shops and cognac and coffee. From every doorway music-machines poured out jazz tunes and strident Sousa marches. The noise was stupefying. Out in the middle of the street a band of bareheaded girls, hardy and tough looking; were following a string of awkward Americans, running into them, elbowing them, asking for treats, crying, “You dance me Fausse-trot, Sammie?”

Claude stationed himself before a movie theatre, where the sign in electric lights read, “Amour, quand tu nous tiens!” and stood watching the people. In the stream that passed him, his eye lit upon two walking arm-in-arm, their hands clasped, talking eagerly and unconscious of the crowd,—different, he saw at once, from all the other strolling, affectionate couples.

The man wore the American uniform; his left arm had been amputated at the elbow, and he carried his head awry, as if he had a stiff neck. His dark, lean face wore an expression of intense anxiety, his eyebrows twitched as if he were in constant pain. The girl, too, looked troubled. As they passed him, under the red light of the Amour sign, Claude could see that her eyes were full of tears. They were wide, blue eyes, innocent looking, and she had the prettiest face he had seen since he landed. From her silk shawl, and little bonnet with blue strings and a white frill, he thought she must be a country girl. As she listened to the soldier, with her mouth half-open, he saw a space between her two front teeth, as with children whose second teeth have just come. While they pushed along in the crowd she looked up intently at the man beside her, or off into the blur of light, where she evidently saw nothing. Her face, young and soft, seemed new to emotion, and her bewildered look made one feel that she did not know where to turn.

Without realizing what he did, Claude followed them out of the crowd into a quiet street, and on into another, even more deserted, where the louses looked as if they had been asleep a long while. Here there were no street lamps, not even a light in the windows, but natural darkness; with the moon high overhead throwing sharp shadows across the white cobble paving. The narrow street made a bend, and he came out upon the church he and his comrades had entered that afternoon. It looked larger by night, and but for the sunken step, he might not have been sure it was the same. The dark neighbouring houses seemed to lean toward it, the moonlight shone silver-grey upon its battered front.

The two walking before him ascended the steps and withdrew into the deep doorway, where they clung together in an embrace so long and still that it was like death. At last they drew shuddering apart. The girl sat down on the stone bench beside the door. The soldier threw himself upon the pavement at her feet, and rested his head on her knee, his one arm lying across her lap.

In the shadow of the houses opposite, Claude kept watch like a sentinel, ready to take their part if any alarm should startle them. The girl bent over her soldier, stroking his head so softly that she might have been putting him to sleep; took his one hand and held it against her bosom as if to stop the pain there. Just behind her, on the sculptured portal, some old bishop, with a pointed cap and a broken crozier, stood, holding up two fingers.