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

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


B COMPANY reached the training camp at S—— thirty-six men short: twenty-five they had buried on the voyage over, and eleven sick were left at the base hospital. The company was to be attached to a battalion which had already seen service, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Scott. Arriving early in the morning, the officers reported at once to Headquarters. Captain Maxey must have suffered a shock when the Colonel rose from his desk to acknowledge his salute, then shook hands with them all around and asked them about their journey. The Colonel was not a very martial figure; short, fat, with slouching shoulders, and a lumpy back like a sack of potatoes. Though he wasn’t much over forty, he was bald, and his collar would easily slip over his head without being unbuttoned. His little twinkling eyes and good-humoured face were without a particle of arrogance or official dignity.

Years ago, when General Pershing, then a handsome young Lieutenant with a slender waist and yellow moustaches, was stationed as Commandant at the University of Nebraska, Walter Scott was an officer in a company of cadets the Lieutenant tools about to military tournaments. The Pershing Rifles, they were called, and they won prizes wherever they went. After his graduation, Scott settled down to running a hardware business in a thriving Nebraska town, and sold gas ranges and garden hose for twenty years. About the time Pershing was sent to the Mexican border, Scott began to think there might eventually be something in the wind, and that he would better get into training. He went down to Texas with the National Guard. He had come to France with the First Division, and had won his promotions by solid, soldierly qualities.

“I see you’re an officer short, Captain Maxey,” the Colonel remarked at their conference. “I think I’ve got a man here to take his place. Lieutenant Gerhardt is a New York man, came over in the band and got transferred to infantry. He has lately been given a commission for good service. He’s had some experience and is a capable fellow.” The Colonel sent his orderly out to bring in a young man whom he introduced to the officers as Lieutenant David Gerhardt.

Claude had been ashamed of Tod Fanning, who was always showing himself a sap-head, and who would never have got a commission if his uncle hadn’t been a Congressman. But the moment he met Lieutenant Gerhardt’s eye, something like jealousy flamed up in him. He felt in a flash that he suffered by comparison with the new officer; that he must be on his guard and must not let himself be patronized.

As they were leaving the Colonel’s office together, Gerhardt asked him whether he had got his billet. Claude replied that after the men were in their quarters, he would look out for something for himself.

The young man smiled. “I’m afraid you may have difficulty. The people about here have been overworked, keeping soldiers, and they are not willing as they once were. I’m with a nice old couple over in the village. I’m almost sure I can get you in there. If you’ll come along, we’ll speak to them, before some one else is put off on them.”

Claude didn’t want to go, didn’t want to accept favours,—nevertheless he went. They walked together along a dusty road that ran between half-ripe wheatfields, bordered with poplar trees. The wild morning-glories and Queen Anne’s lace that grew by the road-side were still shining with dew. A fresh breeze stirred the bearded grain, parting it in furrows and fanning out streaks of crimson poppies. The new officer was not intrusive, certainly. He walked along, whistling softly to himself, seeming quite lost in the freshness of the morning, or in his own thoughts. There had been nothing patronizing in his manner so far, and Claude began to wonder why he felt ill at ease with him. Perhaps it was because he did not look like the rest of them. Though he was young, he did not look boyish. He seemed experienced; a finished product, rather than something on the way. He was handsome, and his face, like his manner and his walk, had something distinguished about it. A broad white forehead under reddish brown hair, hazel eyes with no uncertainty in their look, an aquiline nose, finely cut,—a sensitive, scornful mouth, which somehow did not detract from the kindly, though slightly reserved, expression of his face.

Lieutenant Gerhardt must have been in this neighbourhood for some time; he seemed to know the people. On the road they passed several villagers; a rough looking girl taking a cow out to graze, an old man with a basket on his arm, the postman on his bicycle;—they all spoke to Claude’s companion as if they knew him well.

“What are these blue flowers that grow about everywhere?” Claude asked suddenly, pointing to a clump with his foot.

“Cornflowers,” said the other. “The Germans call them Kaiser-blumen.”

They were approaching the village, which lay on the edge of a wood,—a wood so large one could not see the end of it; it met the horizon with a ridge of pines. The village was but a single street. On either side ran clay-coloured walls, with painted wooden doors here and there, and green shutters. Claude’s guide opened one of these gates, and they walked into a little sanded garden; the house was built round it on three sides. Under a cherry tree sat a woman in a black dress, sewing, a work table beside her.

She was fifty, perhaps, but though her hair was grey she had a look of youthfulness; thin cheeks, delicately flushed with pink, and quiet, smiling, intelligent eyes. Claude thought she looked like a New England woman,—like the photographs of his mother’s cousins and schoolmates. Lieutenant Gerhardt introduced him to Madame Joubert. He was quite disheartened by the colloquy that followed. Clearly his new fellow officer spoke Madame Joubert’s perplexing language as readily as she herself did, and he felt irritated and grudging as he listened. He had been hoping that, wherever he stayed, he could learn to talk to the people a little; but with this accomplished young man about, he would never have the courage to try. He could see that Mme. Joubert liked Gerhardt, liked him very much; and all this, for some reason, discouraged him.

Gerhardt turned to Claude, speaking in a way which included Madame Joubert in the conversation, though she could not understand it: “Madame Joubert will let you come, although she has done her part and really doesn’t have to take any one else in. But you will be so well off here that I’m glad she consents. You will have to share my room, but there are two beds. She will show you.”

Gerhardt went out of the gate and left him alone with his hostess. Her mind seemed to read his thoughts. When he uttered a word, or any sound that resembled one, she quickly and smoothly made a sentence of it, as if she were quite accustomed to talking in this way and expected only monosyllables from strangers. She was kind, even a little playful with him; but he felt it was all good manners, and that underneath she was not thinking of him at all. When he was alone in the tile-floored sleeping room upstairs, unrolling his blankets and arranging his shaving things, he looked out of the window and watched her where she sat sewing under the cherry tree. She had a very sad face, he thought; it wasn’t grief, nothing sharp and definite like sorrow. It was an old, quiet, impersonal sadness,—sweet in its expression, like the sadness of music.

As he came out of the house to start back to the barracks, he bowed to her and tried to say, “Au revoir, Madame. Jusq’ au ce soir.” He stopped near the kitchen door to look at a many-branched rose vine that ran all over the wall, full of cream-coloured, pink-tipped roses, just a shade stronger in colour than the clay wall behind them. Madame Joubert came over and stood beside him, looking at him and at the rosier, “Oui, c’est joli, n’est-ce pas?” She took the scissors that hung by a ribbon from her belt, cut one of the flowers and stuck it in his buttonhole. “Voilà.” She made a little flourish with her thin hand.

Stepping into the street, he turned to shut the wooden door after him, and heard a soft stir in the dark tool-house at his elbow. From among the rakes and spades a child’s frightened face was staring out at him. She was sitting on the ground with her lap full of baby kittens. He caught but a glimpse of her dull, pale face.