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

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


GERHARDT and Claude Wheeler alighted from a taxi before the open gates of a square-roofed, solid-looking house, where all the shutters on the front were closed, and the tops of many trees showed above the garden wall. They crossed a paved court and rang at the door. An old valet admitted the young men, and took them through a wide hall to the salon, which opened on the garden. Madame and Mademoiselle would be down very soon. David went to one of the long windows and looked out. “They have kept it up, in spite of everything. It was always lovely here.”

The garden was spacious,—like a little park. On one side was a tennis court, on the other a fountain, with a pool and water-lilies. The north wall was hidden by ancient yews; on the south two rows of plane trees, cut square, made a long arbour. At the back of the garden there were fine old lindens. The gravel walks wound about beds of gorgeous autumn flowers; in the rose garden, small white roses were still blooming, though the leaves were already red.

Two ladies entered the drawing-room. The mother was short, plump, and rosy, with strong, rather masculine features and yellowish white hair. The tears flashed into her eyes as David bent to kiss her hand, and she embraced him and touched both his cheeks with her lips.

“Et vous, vous aussi!” she murmured, touching the coat of his uniform with her fingers. There was but a moment of softness. She gathered herself up like an old general, Claude thought, as he stood watching the group from the window, drew her daughter forward, and asked David whether he recognized the little girl with whom he used to play. Mademoiselle Claire was not at all like her mother; slender, dark, dressed in a white costume de tennis and an apple green hat with black ribbons, she looked very modern and casual and unconcerned. She was already telling David she was glad he had arrived early, as now they would be able to have a game of tennis before tea. Maman would bring her knitting to the garden and watch them. This last suggestion relieved Claude’s apprehension that he might be left alone with his hostess. When David called him and presented him to the ladies, Mlle. Claire gave him a quick handshake, and said she would be very glad to try him out on the court as soon as she had beaten David. They would find tennis shoes in their room,—a collection of shoes, for the feet of all nations; her brother’s, some that his Russian friend had forgotten when he hurried off to be mobilized, and a pair lately left by an English officer who was quartered on them. She and her mother would wait in the garden. She rang for the old valet.

The Americans found themselves in a large room upstairs, where two modern iron beds stood out conspicuous among heavy mahogany bureaus and desks and dressing-tables, stuffed chairs and velvet carpets and dull red brocade window hangings. David went at once into the little dressing-room and began to array himself for the tennis court. Two suits of flannels and a row of soft shirts hung there on the wall.

“Aren’t you going to change?” he asked, noticing that Claude stood stiff and unbending by the window, looking down into the garden. “Why should I?” said Claude scornfully. “I don’t play tennis. I never had a racket in my hand.”

“Too bad. She used to play very well, though she was only a youngster then.” Gerhardt was regarding his legs in trousers two inches too short for him. “How everything has changed, and yet how everything is still the same! It’s like coming back to places in dreams.”

“They don’t give you much time to dream, I should say!” Claude remarked.


“Explain to the girl that I don’t play, will you? I’ll be down later.”

“As you like.”

Claude stood in the window, watching Gerhardt’s bare head and Mlle. Claire’s green hat and long brown arm go bounding about over the court.

When Gerhardt came to change before tea, he found his fellow officer standing before his bag, which was open, but not unpacked.

“What’s the matter? Feeling shellshock again?”

“Not exactly.” Claude bit his lip. “The fact is, Dave, I don’t feel just comfortable here. Oh, the people are all right But I’m out of place. I’m going to pull out and get a billet somewhere else, and let you visit your friends in peace. Why should I be here? These people don’t keep a hotel.”

“They very nearly do, from what they’ve been telling me. They’ve had a string of Scotch and English quartered on them. They like it, too,—or have the good manners to pretend they do. Of course, you’ll do as you like, but you’ll hurt their feelings and put me in an awkward position. To be frank, I don’t see how you can go away without being distinctly rude.”

Claude stood looking down at the contents of his bag in an irresolute attitude. Catching a glimpse of his face in one of the big mirrors, Gerhardt saw that he looked perplexed and miserable. His flash of temper died, and he put his hand lightly on his friend’s shoulder.

“Come on, Claude! This is too absurd. You don’t even have to dress, thanks to your uniform,—and you don’t have to talk, since you’re not supposed to know the language. I thought you’d like coming here. These people have had an awfully rough time; can’t you admire their pluck?”

“Oh, yes, I do! It’s awkward for me, though.” Claude pulled off his coat and began to brush his hair vigorously. “I guess I’ve always been more afraid of the French than of the Germans. It takes courage to stay, you understand. I want to run.”

“But why? What makes you want to?”

“Oh, I don’t know! Something in the house, in the atmosphere.”

“Something disagreeable?”

“No. Something agreeable.”

David laughed. “Oh, you’ll get over that!”

They had tea in the garden, English fashion—English tea, too, Mlle. Claire informed them, left by the English officers.

At dinner a third member of the family was introduced, a little boy with a cropped head and big black eyes. He sat on Claude’s left, quiet and shy in his velvet jacket, though he followed the conversation eagerly, especially when it touched upon his brother René, killed at Verdun in the second winter of the war. The mother and sister talked about him as if he were living, about his letters and his plans, and his friends at the Conservatoire and in the Army.

Mlle. Claire told Gerhardt news of all the girl students he had known in Paris: how this one was singing for the soldiers; another, when she was nursing in a hospital which was bombed in an air raid, had carried twenty wounded men out of the burning building, one after another, on her back, like sacks of flour. Alice, the dancer, had gone into the English Red Cross and learned English. Odette had married a New Zealander, an officer who was said to be a cannibal; it was well known that his tribe had eaten two Auvergnat missionaries. There was a great deal more that Claude could not understand, but he got enough to see that for these women the war was France, the war was life, and everything that went into it. To be alive, to be conscious and have one’s faculties, was to be in the war.

After dinner, when they went into the salon, Madame Fleury asked David whether he would like to see René’s violin again, and nodded to the little boy. He slipped away and returned carrying the case, which he placed on the table. He opened it carefully and took off the velvet cloth, as if this was his peculiar office, then handed the instrument to Gerhardt.

David turned it over under the candles, telling Madame Fleury that he would have known it anywhere, René’s wonderful Amati, almost too exquisite in tone for the concert hall, like a woman who is too beautiful for the stage. The family stood round and listened to his praise with evident satisfaction. Madame Fleury told him that Lucien was très sérieux with his music, that his master was well pleased with him, and when his hand was a little larger he would be allowed to play upon René’s violin. Claude watched the little boy as he stood looking at the instrument in David’s hands; in each of his big black eyes a candle flame was reflected, as if some steady fire were actually burning there.

“What is it, Lucien?” his mother asked.

“If Monsieur David would be so good as to play before I must go to bed—” he murmured entreatingly.

“But, Lucien, I am a soldier now. I have not worked at all for two years. The Amati would think it had fallen into the hands of a Boche.”

Lucien smiled. “Oh, no! It is too intelligent for that. A little, please,” and he sat down on a footstool before the sofa in confident anticipation.

Mlle. Claire went to the piano. David frowned and began to tune the violin. Madame Fleury called the old servant and told him to light the sticks that lay in the fireplace. She took the arm-chair at the right of the hearth and motioned Claude to a seat on the left. The little boy kept his stool at the other end of the room. Mlle. Claire began the orchestral introduction to the Saint-Saëns concerto.

“Oh, not that!” David lifted his chin and looked at her in perplexity.

She made no reply, but played on, her shoulders bent forward. Lucien drew his knees up under his chin and shivered. When the time came, the violin made its entrance. David had put it back under his chin mechanically, and the instrument broke into that suppressed, bitter melody.

They played for a long while. At last David stopped and wiped his forehead. “I’m afraid I can’t do anything with the third movement, really.”

“Nor can I. But that was the last thing René played on it, the night before he went away, after his last leave.” She began again, and David followed. Madame Fleury sat with half-closed eyes, looking into the fire. Claude, his lips compressed, his hands on his knees, was watching his friend’s back. The music was a part of his own confused emotions. He was torn between generous admiration, and bitter, bitter envy. What would it mean to be able to do anything as well as that, to have a hand capable of delicacy and precision and power? If he had been taught to do anything at all, he would not be sitting here tonight a wooden thing amongst living people. He felt that a man might have been made of him, but nobody had taken the trouble to do it; tongue-tied, foot-tied, hand-tied. If one were born into this world like a bear cub or a bull calf, one could only paw and upset things, break and destroy, all one’s life.

Gerhardt wrapped the violin up in its cloth. The little boy thanked him and carried it away. Madame Fleury and her daughter wished their guests good-night.

David said he was warm, and suggested going into the garden to smoke before they went to bed. He opened one of the long windows and they stepped out on the terrace. Dry leaves were rustling down on the walks; the yew trees made a solid wall, blacker than the darkness. The fountain must have caught the starlight; it was the only shining thing,—a little clear column of twinkling silver. The boys strolled in silence to the end of the walk.

“I guess you’ll go back to your profession, all right,” Claude remarked, in the unnatural tone in which people sometimes speak of things they know nothing about.

“Not I. Of course, I had to play for them. Music has always been like a religion in this house. Listen,” he put up his hand; far away the regular pulsation of the big guns sounded through the still night. “That’s all that matters now. It has killed everything else.”

“I don’t believe it.” Claude stopped for a moment by the edge of the fountain, trying to collect his thoughts. “I don’t believe it has killed anything. It has only scattered things.” He glanced about hurriedly at the sleeping house, the sleeping garden, the clear, starry sky not very far overhead. “It’s men like you that get the worst of it,” he broke out. “But as for me, I never knew there was anything worth living for, till this war came on. Before that, the world seemed like a business proposition.”

“You’ll admit it’s a costly way of providing adventure for the young,” said David drily.

“Maybe so; all the same…”

Claude pursued the argument to himself long after they were in their luxurious beds and David was asleep. No battlefield or shattered country he had seen was as ugly as this world would be if men like his brother Bayliss controlled it altogether. Until the war broke out, he had supposed they did control it; his boyhood had been clouded and enervated by that belief. The Prussians had believed it, too, apparently. But the event had shown that there were a great many people left who cared about something else.

The intervals of the distant artillery fire grew shorter, as if the big guns were tuning up, choking to get something out. Claude sat up in his bed and listened. The sound of the guns had from the first been pleasant to him, had given him a feeling of confidence and safety; tonight he knew why. What they said was, that men could still die for an idea; and would burn all they had made to keep their dreams. He knew the future of the world was safe; the careful planners would never be able to put it into a strait-jacket,—cunning and prudence would never have it to themselves. Why, that little boy downstairs, with the candlelight in his eyes, when it came to the last cry, as they said, could “carry on” for ever! Ideals were not archaic things, beautiful and impotent; they were the real sources of power among men. As long as that was true, and now he knew it was true—he had come all this way to find out—he had no quarrel with Destiny. Nor did he envy David. He would give his own adventure for no man’s. On the edge of sleep it seemed to glimmer, like the clear column of the fountain, like the new moon,—alluring, half-averted, the bright face of danger.