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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 Claude awoke with such a sense of physical well-being as he had not had for a long time. The sun was shining brightly on the white plaster walls and on the red tiles of the floor. Green jalousies, half-drawn, shaded the upper part of the two windows. Through their slats, he could see the forking branches of an old locust tree that grew by the gate. A flock of pigeons flew over it, dipping and mounting with a sharp twinkle of silver wings. It was good to lie again in a house that was cared for by women. He must have felt that even in his sleep, for when he opened his eyes he was thinking about Mahailey and breakfast and summer mornings on the farm. The early stillness was sweet, and the feeling of dry, clean linen against his body. There was a smell of lavender about his warm pillow. He lay still for fear of waking Lieutenant Gerhardt. This was the sort of peace one wanted to enjoy alone. When he rose cautiously on his elbow and looked at the other bed, it was empty. His companion must have dressed and slipped out when day first broke. Somebody else who liked to enjoy things alone; that looked hopeful. But now that he had the place to himself, he decided to get up.

While he was dressing he could see old M. Joubert down in the garden, watering the plants and vines, raking the sand fresh and smooth, clipping off dead leaves and withered flowers and throwing them into a wheelbarrow. These people had lost both their sons in the war, he had been told, and now they were taking care of the property for their grandchildren,—two daughters of the elder son. Claude saw Gerhardt come into the garden, and sit down at the table under the trees, where they had their dinner last night. He hurried down to join him. Gerhardt made room for him on the bench.

“Do you always sleep like that? It’s an accomplishment. I made enough noise when I dressed,—kept dropping things, but it never reached you.”

Madame Joubert came out of the kitchen in a purple flowered morning gown, her hair in curl-papers under a lace cap. She brought the coffee herself, and they sat down at the unpainted table without a cloth, and drank it out of big crockery bowls. They had fresh milk with it,—the first Claude had tasted in a long while, and sugar which Gerhardt produced from his pocket. The old cook had her coffee sitting in the kitchen door, and on the step, at her feet, sat the strange, pale little girl.

Madame Joubert amiably addressed herself to Claude; she knew that Americans were accustomed to a different sort of morning repast, and if he wished to bring bacon from the camp, she would gladly cook it for him. She had even made pancakes for officers who stayed there before. She seemed pleased, however, to learn that Claude had had enough of these things for awhile. She called David by his first name, pronouncing it the French way, and when Claude said he hoped she would do as much for him, she said, Oh, yes, that his was a very good French name, “mais un peu, un peu … romanesque,” at which he blushed, not quite knowing whether she were making fun of him or not.

“It is rather so in English, isn’t it?” David asked.

“Well, it’s a sissy name, if you mean that.”

“Yes, it is, a little,” David admitted candidly.

The day’s work on the parade ground was hard, and Captain Maxey’s men were soft, felt the heat,—didn’t size up well with the Kansas boys who had been hardened by service. The Colonel wasn’t pleased with B Company and detailed them to build new barracks and extend the sanitation system. Claude got out and worked with the men. Gerhardt followed his example, but it was easy to see that he had never handled lumber or tin-roofing before. A kind of rivalry seemed to have sprung up between him and Claude, neither of them knew why.

Claude could see that the sergeants and corporals were a little uncertain about Gerhardt. His laconic speech, never embroidered by the picturesque slang they relished, his gravity, and his rare, incredulous smile, alike puzzled them. Was the new officer a dude? Sergeant Hicks asked of his chum, Dell Able. No, he wasn’t a dude. Was he a swell-head? No, not at all; but he wasn’t a good mixer. He was “an Easterner”; what more he was would develop later. Claude sensed something unusual about him. He suspected that Gerhardt knew a good many things as well as he knew French, and that he tried to conceal it, as people sometimes do when they feel they are not among their equals; this idea nettled him. It was Claude who seized the opportunity to be patronizing, when Gerhardt betrayed that he was utterly unable to select lumber by given measurements.

The next afternoon, work on the new barracks was called off because of rain. Sergeant Hicks set about getting up a boxing match, but when he went to invite the lieutenants, they had both disappeared. Claude was tramping toward the village, determined to get into the big wood that had tempted him ever since his arrival.

The highroad became the village street, and then, at the edge of the wood, became a country road again. A little farther on, where the shade grew denser, it split up into three wagon trails, two of them faint and little used. One of these Claude followed. The rain had dwindled to a steady patter, but the tall brakes growing up in the path splashed him to the middle, and his feet sank in spongy, mossy earth. The light about him, the very air, was green. The trunks of the trees were overgrown with a soft green moss, like mould. He was wondering whether this forest was not always a damp, gloomy place, when suddenly the sun broke through and shattered the whole wood with gold. He had never seen anything like the quivering emerald of the moss, the silky green of the dripping beech tops. Everything woke up; rabbits ran across the path, birds began to sing, and all at once the brakes were full of whirring insects.

The winding path turned again, and came out abruptly on a hillside, above an open glade piled with grey boulders. On the opposite rise of ground stood a grove of pines, with bare, red stems. The light, around and under them, was red like a rosy sunset. Nearly all the stems divided about half-way up into two great arms, which came together again at the top, like the pictures of old Grecian lyres.

Down in the grassy glade, among the piles of flint boulders, little white birches shook out their shining leaves in the lightly moving air. All about the rocks were patches of purple heath; it ran up into the crevices between them like fire. On one of these bald rocks sat Lieutenant Gerhardt, hatless, in an attitude of fatigue or of deep dejection, his hands clasped about his knees, his bronze hair ruddy in the sun. After watching him for a few minutes, Claude descended the slope, swishing the tall ferns.

“Will I be in the way?” he asked as he stopped at the foot of the rocks.

“Oh, no!” said the other, moving a little and unclasping his hand.

Claude sat down on a boulder. “Is this heather?” he asked. “I thought I recognized it, from ‘Kidnapped.’ This part of the world is not as new to you as it is to me.”

“No. I lived in Paris for several years when I was a student.”

“What were you studying?”

“The violin.”

“You are a musician?” Claude looked at him wonderingly.

“I was,” replied the other with a disdainful smile, languidly stretching out his legs in the heather.

“That seems too bad,” Claude remarked gravely.

“What does?”

“Why, to take fellows with a special talent. There are enough of us who haven’t any.”

Gerhardt rolled over on his back and put his hands under his head. “Oh, this affair is too big for exceptions; it’s universal. If you happened to be born twenty-six years ago, you couldn’t escape. If this war didn’t kill you in one way, it would in another.” He told Claude he had trained at Camp Dix, and had come over eight months ago in a regimental band, but he hated the work he had to do and got transferred to the infantry.

When they retraced their steps, the wood was full of green twilight. Their relations had changed somewhat during the last half hour, and they strolled in confidential silence up the home-like street to the door of their own garden.

Since the rain was over, Madame Joubert had laid the cloth on the plank table under the cherry tree, as on the previous evenings. Monsieur was bringing the chairs, and the little girl was carrying out a pile of heavy plates. She rested them against her stomach and leaned back as she walked, to balance them. She wore shoes, but no stockings, and her faded cotton dress switched about her brown legs. She was a little Belgian refugee who had been sent there with her mother. The mother was dead now, and the child would not even go to visit her grave. She could not be coaxed from the court-yard into the quiet street. If the neighbour children came into the garden on an errand, she hid herself. She would have no playmates but the cat; and now she had the kittens in the tool house.

Dinner was very cheerful that evening. M. Joubert was pleased that the storm had not lasted long enough to hurt the wheat. The garden was fresh and bright after the rain. The cherry tree shook down bright drops on the tablecloth when the breeze stirred. The mother cat dozed on the red cushion in Madame Joubert’s sewing chair, and the pigeons fluttered down to snap up earthworms that wriggled in the wet sand. The shadow of the house fell over the dinner-table, but the tree-tops stood up in full sunlight, and the yellow sun poured on the earth wall and the cream-coloured roses. Their petals, ruffled by the rain, gave out a wet, spicy smell.

M. Joubert must have been ten years older than his wife. There was a great contentment in his manner and a pleasant sparkle in his eye. He liked the young officers. Gerhardt had been there more than two weeks, and somewhat relieved the stillness that had settled over the house since the second son died in hospital. The Jouberts had dropped out of things. They had done all they could do, given all they had, and now they had nothing to look forward to,—except the event to which all France looked forward. The father was talking to Gerhardt about the great sea-port the Americans were making of Bordeaux; he said he meant to go there after the war, to see it all for himself.

Madame Joubert was pleased to hear that they had been walking in the wood. And was the heather in bloom? She wished they had brought her some. Next time they went, perhaps. She used to walk there often. Her eyes seemed to come nearer to them, Claude thought, when she spoke of it, and she evidently cared a great deal more about what was blooming in the wood than about what the Americans were doing on the Garonne. He wished he could talk to her as Gerhardt did. He admired the way she roused herself and tried to interest them, speaking her difficult language with such spirit and precision. It was a language that couldn’t be mumbled; that had to be spoken with energy and fire, or not spoken at all. Merely speaking that exacting tongue would help to rally a broken spirit, he thought.

The little maid who served them moved about noiselessly. Her dull eyes never seemed to look; yet she saw when it was time to bring the heavy soup tureen, and when it was time to take it away. Madame Joubert lad found that Claude liked his potatoes with his meat—when there was meat—and not in a course by themselves. She had each time to tell the little girl to go and fetch them. This the child did with manifest reluctance,—sullenly, as if she were being forced to do something wrong. She was a very strange little creature, altogether. As the two soldiers left the table and started for the camp, Claude reached down into the tool house and took up one of the kittens, holding it out in the light to see it blink its eyes. The little girl, just coming out of the kitchen, uttered a shrill scream, a really terrible scream, and squatted down, covering her face with her hands. Madame Joubert came out to chide her.

“What is the matter with that child?” Claude asked as they hurried out of the gate. “Do you suppose she was hurt, or abused in some way?”

“Terrorized. She often screams like that at night. Haven’t you heard her? They have to go and wake her, to stop it. She doesn’t speak any French; only Walloon. And she can’t or won’t learn, so they can’t tell what goes on in her poor little head.”

In the two weeks of intensive training that followed, Claude marvelled at Gerhardt’s spirit and endurance. The muscular strain of mimic trench operations was more of a tax on him than on any of the other officers. He was as tall as Claude, but he weighed only a hundred and forty-six pounds, and he had not been roughly bred like most of the others. When his fellow officers learned that he was a violinist by profession, that he could have had a soft job as interpreter or as an organizer of camp entertainments, they no longer resented his reserve or his occasional superciliousness. They respected a man who could have wriggled out and didn’t.