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

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


THE WOODLAND path was deep in leaves. Claude and David were lying on the dry, springy heather among the flint boulders. Gerhardt, with his Stetson over his eyes, was presumably asleep. They were having fine weather for their holiday. The forest rose about this open glade like an amphitheatre, in golden terraces of horsechestnut and beech. The big nuts dropped velvety and brown, as if they had been soaked in oil, and disappeared in the dry leaves below. Little black yew trees, that had not been visible in the green of summer, stood out among the curly yellow brakes. Through the grey netting of the beech twigs, stiff holly bushes glittered.

It was the Wheeler way to dread false happiness, to feel cowardly about being fooled. Since he had come back, Claude had more than once wondered whether he took too much for granted and felt more at home here than he had any right to feel. The Americans were prone, he had observed, to make themselves very much at home, to mistake good manners for good-will. He had no right to doubt the affection of the Jouberts, however; that was genuine and personal,—not a smooth surface under which almost any shade of scorn might lie and laugh … was not, in short, the treacherous “French politeness” by which one must not let oneself be taken in. Merely having seen the season change in a country gave one the sense of having been there for a long time. And, anyway, he wasn’t a tourist. He was here on legitimate business.

Claude’s sprained ankle was still badly swollen. Madame Joubert was sure he ought not to move about on it at all, begged him to sit in the garden all day and nurse it. But the surgeon at the front had told him that if he once stopped walking, he would have to go to the hospital. So, with the help of his host’s best holly-wood cane, he limped out into the forest every day. This afternoon he was tempted to go still farther. Madame Joubert had told him about some caves at the other end of the wood, underground chambers where the country people had gone to live in times of great misery, long ago, in the English wars. The English wars; he could not remember just how far back they were,—but long enough to make one feel comfortable. As for him, perhaps he would never go home at all. Perhaps, when this great affair was over, he would buy a little farm and stay here for the rest of his life. That was a project he liked to play with. There was no chance for the kind of life he wanted at home, where people were always buying and selling, building and pulling down. He had begun to believe that the Americans were a people of shallow emotions. That was the way Gerhardt had put it once; and if it was true, there was no cure for it. Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together. While he was absorbed in his day dream of farming in France, his companion stirred and rolled over on his elbow.

“You know we are to join the Battalion at A——. They’ll be living like kings there. Hicks will get so fat he’ll drop over on the march. Headquarters must have something particularly nasty in mind; the infantry is always fed up before a slaughter. But I’ve been thinking; I have some old friends at A——. Suppose we go on there a day early, and get them to take us in? It’s a fine old place, and I ought to go to see them. The son was a fellow student of mine at the Conservatoire. He was killed the second winter of the war. I used to go up there for the holidays with him; I would like to see his mother and sister again. You’ve no objection?”

Claude did not answer at once. He lay squinting off at the beech trees, without moving. “You always avoid that subject with me, don’t you?” he said presently.

“What subject?”

“Oh, anything to do with the Conservatoire, or your profession.”

“I haven’t any profession at present. I’ll never go back to the violin.”

“You mean you couldn’t make up for the time you’ll lose?”

Gerhardt settled his back against a rock and got out his pipe. “That would be difficult; but other things would be harder. I’ve lost much more than time.”

“Couldn’t you have got exemption, one way or another?”

“I might have. My friends wanted to take it up and make a test case of me. But I couldn’t stand for it. I didn’t feel I was a good enough violinist to admit that I wasn’t a man. I often wish I had been in Paris that summer when the war broke out; then I would have gone into the French army on the first impulse, with the other students, and it would have been better.”

David paused and sat puffing at his pipe. Just then a soft movement stirred the brakes on the hillside. A little barefoot girl stood there, looking about. She had heard voices, but at first did not see the uniforms that blended with the yellow and brown of the wood. Then she saw the sun shining on two heads; one square, and amber in colour,—the other reddish bronze, long and narrow. She took their friendliness for granted and came down the hill, stopping now and again to pick up shiny horse chestnuts and pop them into a sack she was dragging. David called to her and asked her whether the nuts were good to eat.

“Oh, non!” she exclaimed, her face expressing the liveliest terror, “pour les cochons!” These inexperienced Americans might eat almost anything. The boys laughed and gave her some pennies, “pour les cochons aussi.” She stole about the edge of the wood, stirring among the leaves for nuts, and watching the two soldiers.

Gerhardt knocked out his pipe and began to fill it again. “I went home to see my mother in May, of 1914. I wasn’t here when the war broke out. The Conservatoire closed at once, so I arranged a concert tour in the States that winter, and did very well. That was before all the little Russians went over, and the field wasn’t so crowded. I had a second season, and that went well. But I was getting more nervous all the time; I was only half there.” He smoked thoughtfully, sitting with folded arms, as if he were going over a succession of events or states of feeling. “When my number was drawn, I reported to see what I could do about getting out; I took a look at the other fellows who were trying to squirm, and chucked it. I’ve never been sorry. Not long afterward, my violin was smashed, and my career seemed to go along with it.”

Claude asked him what he meant.

“While I was at Camp Dix, I had to play at one of the entertainments. My violin, a Stradivarius, was in a vault in New York. I didn’t need it for that concert, any more than I need it at this minute; yet I went to town and brought it out. I was taking it up from the station in a military car, and a drunken taxi driver ran into us. I wasn’t hurt, but the violin, lying across my knees, was smashed into a thousand pieces. I didn’t know what it meant then; but since, I’ve seen so many beautiful old things smashed … I’ve become a fatalist.”

Claude watched his brooding head against the grey flint rock.

“You ought to have kept out of the whole thing. Any army man would say so.”

David’s head went back against the boulder, and he threw one of the, chestnuts lightly into the air. “Oh, one violinist more or less doesn’t matter! But who is ever going back to anything? That’s what I want to know!”

Claude felt guilty; as if David must have guessed what apostasy had been going on in his own mind this afternoon. “You don’t believe we are going to get out of this war what we went in for, do you?” he asked suddenly.

“Absolutely not,” the other replied with cool indifference.

“Then I certainly don’t see what you’re here for!”

“Because in 1917 I was twenty-four years old, and able to bear arms. The war was put up to our generation. I don’t know what for; the sins of our fathers, probably. Certainly not to make the world safe for Democracy, or any rhetoric of that sort. When I was doing stretcher work, I had to tell myself over and over that nothing would come of it, but that it had to be. Sometimes, though, I think something must.… Nothing we expect, but something unforeseen.” He paused and shut his eyes. “You remember in the old mythology tales how, when the sons of the gods were born, the mothers always died in agony? Maybe it’s only Semêle I’m thinking of. At any rate, I’ve sometimes wondered whether the young men of our time had to die to bring a new idea into the world … something Olympian. I’d like to know. I think I shall know. Since I’ve been over here this time, I’ve come to believe in immortality. Do you?”

Claude was confused by this quiet question. “I hardly know. I’ve never been able to make up my mind.”

“Oh, don’t bother about it! If it comes to you, it comes. You don’t have to go after it. I arrived at it in quite the same way I used to get things in art,—knowing them and living on them before I understood them. Such ideas used to seem childish to me.” Gerhardt sprang up. “Now, have I told you what you want to know about my case?” He looked down at Claude with a curious glimmer of amusement and affection. “I’m going to stretch my legs. It’s four o’clock.”

He disappeared among the red pine stems, where the sunlight made a rose-colored lake, as it used to do in the summer … as it would do in all the years to come, when they were not there to see it, Claude was thinking. He pulled his hat over his eyes and went to sleep.

The little girl on the edge of the beech wood left her sack and stole quietly down the hill. Sitting in the heather and drawing her feet up under her, she stayed still for a long time, and regarded with curiosity the relaxed, deep breathing body of the American soldier.

The next day was Claude’s twenty-fifth birthday, and in honour of that event Papa Joubert produced a bottle of old Burgundy from his cellar, one of a few dozens he had laid in for great occasions when he was a young man.

During that week of idleness at Madame Joubert’s, Claude often thought that the period of happy “youth,” about which his old friend Mrs. Erlich used to talk, and which he had never experienced, was being made up to him now. He was having his youth in France. He knew that nothing like this would ever come again; the fields and woods would never again be laced over with this hazy enchantment. As he came up the village street in the purple evening, the smell of wood-smoke from the chimneys went to his head like a narcotic, opened the pores of his skin, and sometimes made the tears come to his eyes. Life had after all turned out well for him, and everything had a noble significance. The nervous tension in which he had lived for years now seemed incredible to him … absurd and childish, when he thought of it at all. He did not torture himself with recollections. He was beginning over again.

One night he dreamed that he was at home; out in the ploughed fields, where he could see nothing but the furrowed brown earth, stretching from horizon to horizon. Up and down it moved a boy, with a plough and two horses. At first he thought it was his brother Ralph; but on coming nearer, he saw it was himself,—and he was full of fear for this boy. Poor Claude, he would never, never get away; he was going to miss everything! While he was struggling to speak to Claude, and warn him, he awoke.

In the years when he went to school in Lincoln, he was always hunting for some one whom he could admire without reservations; some one he could envy, emulate, wish to be. Now he believed that even then he must have had some faint image of a man like Gerhardt in his mind. It was only in war times that their paths would have been likely to cross; or that they would have had anything to do together … any of the common interests that make men friends.