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

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


THE NEXT morning when Claude arrived at the hospital to see Fanning, he found every one too busy to take account of him. The courtyard was full of ambulances, and a long line of camions waited outside the gate. A train-load of wounded Americans had come in, sent back from evacuation hospitals to await transportation home.

As the men were carried past him, he thought they looked as if they had been sick a long while—looked, indeed, as if they could never get well. The boys who died on board the Anchises had never seemed as sick as these did. Their skin was yellow or purple, their eyes were sunken, their lips sore. Everything that belonged to health had left them, every attribute of youth was gone. One poor fellow, whose face and trunk were wrapped in cotton, never stopped moaning, and as he was carried up the corridor he smelled horribly. The Texas orderly remarked to Claude, “In the beginning that one only had a finger blown off; would you believe it?”

These were the first wounded men Claude had seen. To shed bright blood, to wear the red badge of courage,—that was one thing; but to be reduced to this was quite another. Surely, the sooner these boys died, the better.

The Texan, passing with his next load, asked Claude why he didn’t go into the office and wait until the rush was over. Looking in through the glass door, Claude noticed a young man writing at a desk enclosed by a railing. Something about his figure, about the way he held his head, was familiar. When he lifted his left arm to prop open the page of his ledger, it was a stump below the elbow. Yes, there could be no doubt about it; the pale, sharp face, the beak nose, the frowning, uneasy brow. Presently, as if he felt a curious eye upon him, the young man paused in his rapid writing, wriggled his shoulders, put an iron paperweight on the page of his book, took a case from his pocket and shook a cigarette out on the table. Going up to the railing, Claude offered him a cigar. “No, thank you. I don’t use them any more. They seem too heavy for me.” He struck a match, moved his shoulders again as if they were cramped, and sat down on the edge of his desk.

“Where do these wounded men come from?” Claude asked. “I just got in on the Anchises yesterday.”

“They come from various evacuation hospitals. I believe most of them are the Belleau Wood lot.”

“Where did you lose your arm?”

“Cantigny. I was in the First Division. I’d been over since last September, waiting for something to happen, and then got fixed in my first engagement.”

“Can’t you go home?”

“Yes, I could. But I don’t want to. I’ve got used to things over here. I was attached to Headquarters in Paris for awhile.”

Claude leaned across the rail. “We read about Cantigny at home, of course. We were a good deal excited; I suppose you were?”

“Yes, we were nervous. We hadn’t been under fire, and we’d been fed up on all that stuff about it’s taking fifty years to build a fighting machine. The Hun had a strong position; we looked up that long hill and wondered how we were going to behave.” As he talked the boy’s eyes seemed to be moving all the time, probably because he could not move his head at all. After blowing out deep clouds of smoke until his cigarette was gone, he sat down to his ledger and frowned at the page in a way which said he was too busy to talk.

Claude saw Dr. Trueman standing in the doorway, waiting for him. They made their morning call on Fanning, and left the hospital together. The Doctor turned to him as if he had something on his mind.

“I saw you talking to that wry-necked boy. How did he seem, all right?”

“Not exactly. That is, he seems very nervous. Do you know anything about him?”

“Oh, yes! He’s a star patient here, a psychopathic case. I had just been talking to one of the doctors about him, when I came out and saw you with him. He was shot in the neck at Cantigny, where he lost his arm. The wound healed, but his memory is affected; some nerve cut, I suppose, that connects with that part of his brain. This psychopath, Phillips, takes a great interest in him and keeps him here to observe him. He’s writing a book about him. He says the fellow has forgotten almost everything about his life before he came to France. The queer thing is, it’s his recollection of women that is most affected. He can remember his father, but not his mother; doesn’t know if he has sisters or not,—can remember seeing girls about the house, but thinks they may have been cousins. His photographs and belongings were lost when he was hurt, all except a bunch of letters he had in his pocket. They are from a girl he’s engaged to, and he declares he can’t remember her at all; doesn’t know what she looks like or anything about her, and can’t remember getting engaged. The doctor has the letters. They seem to be from a nice girl in his own town who is very ambitious for him to make the most of himself. He deserted soon after he was sent to this hospital, ran away. He was found on a farm out in the country here, where the sons had been killed and the people had sort of adopted him. He’d quit his uniform and was wearing the clothes of one of the dead sons. He’d probably have got away with it, if he hadn’t had that wry neck. Some one saw him in the fields and recognized him and reported him. I guess nobody cared much but this psychopathic doctor; he wanted to get his pet patient back. They call him ‘the lost American’ here.”

“He seems to be doing some sort of clerical work,” Claude observed discreetly.

“Yes, they say he’s very well educated. He remembers the books he has read better than his own life. He can’t recall what his home town looks like, or his home. And the women are clear wiped out, even the girl he was going to marry.”

Claude smiled. “Maybe he’s fortunate in that.”

The Doctor turned to him affectionately, “Now Claude, don’t begin to talk like that the minute you land in this country.”

Claude walked on past the church of St. Jacques. Last night already seemed like a dream, but it haunted him. He wished he could do something to help that boy; help him get away from the doctor who was writing a book about him, and the girl who wanted him to make the most of himself; get away and be lost altogether in what he had been lucky enough to find. All day, as Claude came and went, he looked among the crowds for that young face, so compassionate and tender.