Part 5 out of 5
game went on....
Another day Jean, being angry at the weather and having eaten a huge
amount of _soupe_, began yelling at the top of his voice: "_MERDE a la
France_" and laughing heartily. No one paying especial attention to him,
he continued (happy in this new game with himself) for about fifteen
minutes. Then The Trick Raincoat (that undersized specimen, clad in
feminine-fitting raiment with flashy shoes, who was by trade a pimp,
being about half Jean's height and a tenth of his physique,) strolled up
to Jean--who had by this time got as far as my bed--and, sticking his
sallow face as near Jean's as the neck could reach, said in a solemn
voice: "_II ne faut pas dire ca._" Jean astounded, gazed at the intruder
for a moment; then demanded: "_Qui dit ca? Moi? Jean? Jamais, ja-MAIS.
MERDE a la France!_" nor would he yield a point, backed up as he was by
the moral support of everyone present except the Raincoat--who found
discretion the better part of valour and retired with a few dark threats;
leaving Jean master of the situation and yelling for the Raincoat's
particular delectation: "_MAY-RRR-DE a la France!_" more loudly than
A little after the epic battle with stovepipes between The Young Pole and
Bill The Hollander, the wrecked _poele_ (which was patiently waiting to
be repaired) furnished Jean with perhaps his most brilliant inspiration.
The final section of pipe (which conducted the smoke through a hole in
the wall to the outer air) remained in place all by itself, projecting
about six feet into the room at a height of seven or eight feet from the
floor. Jean noticed this; got a chair; mounted on it, and by applying
alternately his ear and his mouth to the end of the pipe created for
himself a telephone, with the aid of which he carried on a conversation
with The Wanderer (at that moment visiting his family on the floor below)
to this effect:
--Jean, grasping the pipe and speaking angrily into it, being evidently
nettled at the poor connection--"Heh-loh, hello, hello, hello"--surveying
the pipe in consternation--"_Merde. Ca marche pas_"--trying again with a
deep frown--"heh-LOH!"--tremendously agitated--"HEHLOH!"--a beautiful
smile supplanting the frown--"hello Barbu. Are you there? _Oui?
Bon!_"--evincing tremendous pleasure at having succeeded in establishing
the connection satisfactorily--"Barbu? Are you listening to me? _Oui?_
What's the matter Barbu? _Comment? Moi? Oui, MOI? JEAN jaMAIS! jamais,
jaMAIS_, Barbu. I have never said you have fleas. _C'etait pas moi, tu
sais. JaMAIS, c'etait un autre. Peutetre c'etait Mexique_"--turning his
head in Mexique's direction and roaring with laughter--"Hello, HEH-LOH.
Barbu? _Tu sais_, Barbu, _j'ai jamais dit ca. Au contraire_, Barbu. _J'ai
dit que vous avez des totos_"--another roar of laughter--"What? It isn't
true? Good. Then. What have you got, Barbu? Barbu? Lice--OHHHH. I
understand. It's better"--shaking with laughter, then suddenly
tremendously serious--"hellohellohellohello HEHLOH!"--addressing the
stove-pipe--"_C'est une mauvaise machine, ca_"--speaking into it with the
greatest distinctness--"HEL-L-LOH. Barbu? _Liberte_, Barbu. _Oui.
Comment? C'est ca. Liberte pour tou'l'monde. Quand? Apres la soupe. Oui.
Liberte pour tou'l'monde apres la soupe!_"--to which jest astonishingly
reacted a certain old man known as the West Indian Negro (a stocky
credulous creature with whom Jean would have nothing to do, and whose
tales of Brooklyn were indeed outclassed by Jean's _histoires d'amour_)
who leaped rheumatically from his _paillasse_ at the word "_Liberte_" and
rushed limpingly hither and thither inquiring Was it true? to the
enormous and excruciating amusement of The Enormous Room in general.
After which Jean, exhausted with laughter, descended from the chair and
lay down on his bed to read a letter from Lulu (not knowing a syllable of
it). A little later he came rushing up to my bed in the most terrific
state of excitement, the whites of his eyes gleaming, his teeth bared,
his kinky hair fairly standing on end, and cried:
"You--me, me--you? _Pas bon._ You--you, me--me: _bon_. Me--me, you--you!"
and went away capering and shouting with laughter, dancing with great
grace and as great agility and with an imaginary partner the entire
length of the room.
There was another game--a pure child's game--which Jean played. It was
the name game. He amused himself for hours together by lying on his
_paillasse_ tilting his head back, rolling up his eyes, and crying in a
high quavering voice--"JAW-neeeeee." After a repetition or two of his own
name in English, he would demand sharply "Who is calling me? Mexique?
_Es-ce que tu m'appelle_, Mexique?" and if Mexique happened to be asleep,
Jean would rush over and cry in his ear, shaking him thoroughly--"_Es-ce
tu m'appelle, toi?_" Or it might be Barbu, or Pete The Hollander, or B.
or myself, of whom he sternly asked the question--which was always
followed by quantities of laughter on Jean's part. He was never perfectly
happy unless exercising his inexhaustible imagination....
Of all Jean's extraordinary selves, the moral one was at once the most
rare and most unreasonable. In the matter of _les femmes_ he could hardly
have been accused by his bitterest enemy of being a Puritan. Yet the
Puritan streak came out one day, in a discussion which lasted for several
hours. Jean as in the case of France, spoke in dogma. His contention was
very simple: "The woman who smokes is not a woman." He defended it hotly
against the attacks of all the nations represented; in vain did Belgian
and Hollander, Russian and Pole, Spaniard and Alsatian, charge and
counter-charge--Jean remained unshaken. A woman could do anything but
smoke--if she smoked she ceased automatically to be a woman and became
something unspeakable. As Jean was at this time sitting alternately on
B.'s bed and mine, and as the alternations became increasingly frequent
as the discussion waxed hotter, we were not sorry when the _planton's_
shout "_A la promenade les hommes!_" scattered the opposing warriors.
Then up leaped Jean (who had almost come to blows innumerable times) and
rushed laughing to the door, having already forgotten the whole thing.
Now we come to the story of Jean's undoing, and may the gods which made
Jean le Negre give me grace to tell it as it was.
The trouble started with Lulu. One afternoon, shortly after the
telephoning, Jean was sick at heart and couldn't be induced either to
leave his couch or to utter a word. Everyone guessed the reason--Lulu had
left for another camp that morning. The _planton_ told Jean to come down
with the rest and get _soupe_. No answer. Was Jean sick? "_Oui_, me
seek." And steadfastly he refused to eat, till the disgusted _planton_
gave it up and locked Jean in alone. When we ascended after _la soupe_ we
found Jean as we had left him, stretched on his couch, big tears on his
cheeks. I asked him if I could do anything for him; he shook his head. We
offered him cigarettes--no, he did not wish to smoke. As B. and I went
away we heard him moaning to himself "Jawnee no see LooLoo no more." With
the exception of ourselves, the inhabitants of La Ferte Mace took Jean's
desolation as a great joke. Shouts of Lulu! rent the welkin on all sides.
Jean stood it for an hour; then he leaped up, furious; and demanded
(confronting the man from whose lips the cry had last issued)--"Feeneesh
LooLoo?" The latter coolly referred him to the man next to him; he in
turn to someone else; and round and round the room Jean stalked, seeking
the offender, followed by louder and louder shouts of Lulu! and Jawnee!
the authors of which (so soon as he challenged them) denied with innocent
faces their guilt and recommended that Jean look closer next time. At
last Jean took to his couch in utter misery and disgust. The rest of _les
hommes_ descended as usual for the promenade--not so Jean. He ate nothing
for supper. That evening not a sound issued from his bed.
Next morning he awoke with a broad grin, and to the salutations of Lulu!
replied, laughing heartily at himself "FEENEESH Loo Loo." Upon which the
tormentors (finding in him no longer a victim) desisted; and things
resumed their normal course. If an occasional Lulu! upraised itself, Jean
merely laughed, and repeated (with a wave of his arm) "FEENEESH."
Finished Lulu seemed to be.
But _un jour_ I had remained upstairs during the promenade, both because
I wanted to write and because the weather was worse than usual.
Ordinarily, no matter how deep the mud in the _cour_, Jean and I would
trot back and forth, resting from time to time under the little shelter
out of the drizzle, talking of all things under the sun. I remember on
one occasion we were the only ones to brave the rain and slough--Jean in
paper-thin soled slippers (which he had recently succeeded in drawing
from the Gestionnaire) and I in my huge _sabots_--hurrying back and forth
with the rain pouring on us, and he very proud. On this day, however, I
refused the challenge of the mud.
The promenaders had been singularly noisy, I thought. Now they were
mounting to the room making a truly tremendous racket. No sooner were the
doors opened than in rushed half a dozen frenzied friends, who began
telling me all at once about a terrific thing which my friend the _noir_
had just done. It seems that The Trick Raincoat had pulled at Jean's
handkerchief (Lulu's gift in other days) which Jean wore always
conspicuously in his outside breast pocket; that Jean had taken the
Raincoat's head in his two hands, held it steady, abased his own head,
and rammed the helpless T.R. as a bull would do--the impact of Jean's
head upon the other's nose causing that well-known feature to occupy a
new position in the neighbourhood of the right ear. B. corroborated this
description, adding the Raincoat's nose was broken and that everyone was
down on Jean for fighting in an unsportsmanlike way. I found Jean still
very angry, and moreover very hurt because everyone was now shunning him.
I told him that I personally was glad of what he'd done; but nothing
would cheer him up. The T.R. now entered, very terrible to see, having
been patched up by Monsieur Richard with copious plasters. His nose was
not broken, he said thickly, but only bent. He hinted darkly of trouble
in store for _le noir_; and received the commiserations of everyone
present except Mexique, The Zulu, B. and me.
The Zulu, I remember, pointed to his own nose (which was not
unimportant), then to Jean, and made a _moue_ of excruciating anguish,
and winked audibly.
Jean's spirit was broken. The well-nigh unanimous verdict against him had
convinced his minutely sensitive soul that it had done wrong. He lay
quietly, and would say nothing to anyone.
Some time after the soup, about eight o'clock, the Fighting Sheeney and
The Trick Raincoat suddenly set upon Jean le Negre a propos of nothing;
and began pommelling him cruelly. The conscience-stricken pillar of
beautiful muscle--who could have easily killed both his assailants at one
blow--not only offered no reciprocatory violence but refused even to
defend himself. Unresistingly, wincing with pain, his arms mechanically
raised and his head bent, he was battered frightfully to the window by
his bed, thence into the corner (upsetting the stool in the _pissoir_),
thence along the wall to the door. As the punishment increased he cried
out like a child: "_Laissez-moi tranquille!_"--again and again; and in
his voice the insane element gained rapidly. Finally, shrieking in agony,
he rushed to the nearest window; and while the Sheeneys together
pommelled him yelled for help to the _planton_ beneath.--
The unparalleled consternation and applause produced by this one-sided
battle had long since alarmed the authorities. I was still trying to
break through the five-deep ring of spectators (among whom was The
Messenger Boy, who advised me to desist and got a piece of advice in
return)--when with a tremendous crash open burst the door; and in stepped
four _plantons_ with drawn revolvers, looking frightened to death,
followed by the Surveillant who carried a sort of baton and was crying
faintly: "_Qu'est-ce que c'est!_"
At the first sound of the door the two Sheeneys had fled, and were now
playing the part of innocent spectators. Jean alone occupied the stage.
His lips were parted. His eyes were enormous. He was panting as if his
heart would break. He still kept his arms raised as if seeing everywhere
before him fresh enemies. Blood spotted here and there the wonderful
chocolate carpet of his skin, and his whole body glistened with sweat.
His shirt was in ribbons over his beautiful muscles.
Seven or eight persons at once began explaining the fight to the
Surveillant, who could make nothing out of their accounts and therefore
called aside a trusted older man in order to get his version. The two
retired from the room. The _plantons_, finding the expected wolf a lamb,
flourished their revolvers about Jean and threatened him in the
insignificant and vile language which _plantons_ use to anyone whom they
can bully. Jean kept repeating dully "_laissez-moi tranquille. Ils
voulaient me tuer._" His chest shook terribly with vast sobs.
Now the Surveillant returned and made a speech, to the effect that he had
received independently of each other the stories of four men, that by all
counts _le negre_ was absolutely to blame, that _le negre_ had caused an
inexcusable trouble to the authorities and to his fellow-prisoners by
this wholly unjustified conflict, and that as a punishment the _negre_
would now suffer the consequences of his guilt in the _cabinot_.--Jean
had dropped his arms to his sides. His face was twisted with anguish. He
made a child's gesture, a pitiful hopeless movement with his slender
hands. Sobbing he protested: "It isn't my fault, _monsieur le
Surveillant!_ They attacked me! I didn't do a thing! They wanted to kill
me! Ask him"--he pointed to me desperately. Before I could utter a
syllable the Surveillant raised his hand for silence: _le negre_ had done
wrong. He should be placed in the _cabinot_.
--Like a flash, with a horrible tearing sob, Jean leaped from the
surrounding _plantons_ and rushed for the coat which lay on his bed
screaming--"_AHHHHH--mon couteau!_"--"Look out or he'll get his knife and
kill himself!" someone yelled; and the four _plantons_ seized Jean by
both arms just as he made a grab for his jacket. Thwarted in his hope and
burning with the ignominy of his situation, Jean cast his enormous eyes
up at the nearest pillar, crying hysterically: "Everybody is putting me
in _cabinot_ because I am black."--In a second, by a single movement of
his arms, he sent the four _plantons_ reeling to a distance of ten feet:
leaped at the pillar: seized it in both hands like a Samson, and (gazing
for another second with a smile of absolute beatitude at its length)
dashed his head against it. Once, twice, thrice he smote himself, before
the _plantons_ seized him--and suddenly his whole strength wilted; he
allowed himself to be overpowered by them and stood with bowed head,
tears streaming from his eyes--while the smallest pointed a revolver at
This was a little more than the Surveillant had counted on. Now that
Jean's might was no more, the bearer of the croix de guerre stepped
forward and in a mild placating voice endeavoured to soothe the victim of
his injustice. It was also slightly more than I could stand, and slamming
aside the spectators I shoved myself under his honour's nose. "Do you
know," I asked, "whom you are dealing with in this man? A child. There
are a lot of Jeans where I come from. You heard what he said? He is
black, is he not, and gets no justice from you. You heard that. I saw the
whole affair. He was attacked, he put up no resistance whatever, he was
beaten by two cowards. He is no more to blame than I am."--The
Surveillant was waving his wand and cooing "_Je comprends, je comprends,
c'est malheureux._"--"You're god damn right its _malheureux_" I said,
forgetting my French. "_Quand meme_, he has resisted authority" The
Surveillant gently continued: "Now Jean, be quiet, you will be taken to
the _cabinot_. You may as well go quietly and behave yourself like a good
At this I am sure my eyes started out of my head. All I could think of to
say was: "_Attends, un petit moment._" To reach my own bed took but a
second. In another second I was back, bearing my great and sacred
_pelisse_. I marched up to Jean. "Jean" I remarked with a smile, "you are
going to the _cabinot_ but you're coming back right away. I know that you
are perfectly right. Put that on"--and I pushed him gently into my coat.
"Here are my cigarettes, Jean; you can smoke just as much as you like"--I
pulled out all I had, one full _paquet_ of Maryland, and a half dozen
loose ones, and deposited them carefully in the right hand pocket of the
_pelisse_. Then I patted him on the shoulder and gave him the immortal
salutation--"_Bonne chance, mon ami!_"
He straightened proudly. He stalked like a king through the doorway. The
astounded _plantons_ and the embarrassed Surveillant followed, the latter
closing the doors behind him. I was left with a cloud of angry witnesses.
An hour later the doors opened, Jean entered quietly, and the doors shut.
As I lay on my bed I could see him perfectly. He was almost naked. He
laid my _pelisse_ on his mattress, then walked calmly up to a
neighbouring bed and skillfully and unerringly extracted a brush from
under it. Back to his own bed he tiptoed, sat down on it, and began
brushing my coat. He brushed it for a half hour, speaking to no one,
spoken to by no one. Finally he put the brush back, disposed the
_pelisse_ carefully on his arm, came to my bed, and as carefully laid it
down. Then he took from the right hand outside pocket a full _paquet
jaune_ and six loose cigarettes, showed them for my approval, and
returned them to their place. "_Merci_" was his sole remark. B. got Jean
to sit down beside him on his bed and we talked for a few minutes,
avoiding the subject of the recent struggle. Then Jean went back to his
own bed and lay down.
It was not till later that we learned the climax--not till _le petit
belge avec le bras casse, le petit balayeur_, came hurrying to our end of
the room and sat down with us. He was bursting with excitement; his well
arm jerked and his sick one stumped about and he seemed incapable of
speech. At length words came.
"_Monsieur Jean_" (now that I think of it, I believe someone had told him
that all male children in America are named Jean at their birth) "I saw
SOME SIGHT! _le negre, vous savez?_--he is STRONG: _Monsieur Jean_, he's
_a_ GIANT, _croyez moi! C'est pas un homme, tu sais? Je l'ai vu,
moi_"--and he indicated his eyes.
We pricked up our ears.
The _balayeur_, stuffing a pipe nervously with his tiny thumb said: "You
saw the fight here? So did I. The whole of it. _Le noir avait raison._
Well, when they took him downstairs, I slipped out too--_Je suis le
balayeur, savez vous?_ and the _balayeur_ can go where other people
I gave him a match, and he thanked me. He struck it on his trousers with
a quick pompous gesture, drew heavily on his squeaky pipe, and at last
shot a minute puff of smoke into the air: then another, and another.
Satisfied, he went on; his good hand grasping the pipe between its index
and second fingers and resting on one little knee, his legs crossed, his
small body hunched forward, wee unshaven face close to mine--went on in
the confidential tone of one who relates an unbelievable miracle to a
couple of intimate friends:
"Monsieur Jean, I followed. They got him to the _cabinot_. The door stood
open. At this moment _les femmes descendaient_, it was their _corvee
d'eau, vous savez._ He saw them, _le noir_. One of them cried from the
stairs, Is a Frenchman stronger than you, Jean? The _plantons_ were
standing around him, the Surveillant was behind. He took the nearest
_planton_, and tossed him down the corridor so that he struck against the
door at the end of it. He picked up two more, one in each arm, and threw
them away. They fell on top of the first. The last tried to take hold of
Jean, and so Jean took him by the neck"--(the _balayeur_ strangled
himself for our benefit)--"and that _planton_ knocked down the other
three, who had got on their feet by this time. You should have seen the
Surveillant. He had run away and was saying, 'Capture him, capture him.'
The _plantons_ rushed Jean, all four of them. He caught them as they came
and threw them about. One knocked down the Surveillant. The women cried
'_Vive Jean_,' and clapped their hands. The Surveillant called to the
_plantons_ to take Jean, but they wouldn't go near Jean, they said he was
a black devil. The women kidded them. They were so sore. And they could
do nothing. Jean was laughing. His shirt was almost off him. He asked the
planton to come and take him, please. He asked the Surveillant, too. The
women had set down their pails and were dancing up and down and yelling.
The Directeur came down and sent them flying. The Surveillant and his
_plantons_ were as helpless as if they had been children. Monsieur
I gave him another match. "_Merci, Monsieur Jean._" He struck it, drew on
his pipe, lowered it, and went on:
"They were helpless, and men. I am little. I have only one arm, _tu
sais_. I walked up to Jean and said, Jean, you know me, I am your friend.
He said, Yes. I said to the _plantons_, Give me that rope. They gave me
the rope that they would have bound him with. He put out his wrists for
me. I tied his hands behind his back. He was like a lamb. The _plantons_
rushed up and tied his feet together. Then they tied his hands and feet
together. They took the lacings out of his shoes for fear he would use
them to strangle himself. They stood him up in an angle between two walls
in the _cabinot_. They left him there for an hour. He was supposed to
have been in there all night; but the Surveillant knew that he would have
died, for he was almost naked, and _vous savez_, Monsieur Jean, it was
cold in there. And damp. A fully clothed man would have been dead in the
morning. And he was naked.... _Monsieur Jean--un geant!_"
--This same _petit belge_ had frequently protested to me that _Il est
fou, le noir_. He is always playing when sensible men try to sleep. The
last few hours (which had made of the _fou_ a _geant_) made of the
scoffer a worshipper. Nor did "_le bras casse_" ever from that time forth
desert his divinity. If as _balayeur_ he could lay hands on a _morceau de
pain_ or _de viande_, he bore it as before to our beds; but Jean was
always called over to partake of the forbidden pleasure.
As for Jean, one would hardly have recognised him. It was as if the child
had fled into the deeps of his soul, never to reappear. Day after day
went by, and Jean (instead of courting excitement as before) cloistered
himself in solitude; or at most sought the company of B. and me and Le
Petit Belge for a quiet chat or a cigarette. The morning after the three
fights he did not appear in the _cour_ for early promenade along with the
rest of us (including The Sheeneys). In vain did _les femmes_ strain
their necks and eyes to find the black man who was stronger than six
Frenchmen. And B. and I noticed our bed-clothing airing upon the
window-sills. When we mounted, Jean was patting and straightening our
blankets, and looking for the first time in his life guilty of some
enormous crime. Nothing however had disappeared. Jean said, "Me feeks
_lits tous les jours."_ And every morning he aired and made our beds for
us, and we mounted to find him smoothing affectionately some final
ruffle, obliterating with enormous solemnity some microscopic crease. We
gave him cigarettes when he asked for them (which was almost never) and
offered them when we knew he had none or when we saw him borrowing from
someone else whom his spirit held in less esteem. Of us he asked no
favours. He liked us too well.
When B. went away, Jean was almost as desolate as I.
About a fortnight later, when the grey dirty snow-slush hid the black
filthy world which we saw from our windows, and when people lived in
their ill-smelling beds, it came to pass that my particular _amis_--The
Zulu, Jean, Mexique--and I and all the remaining _miserables_ of La Ferte
descended at the decree of Caesar Augustus to endure our bi-weekly bath.
I remember gazing stupidly at Jean's chocolate-coloured nakedness as it
strode to the tub, a rippling texture of muscular miracle. _Tout le
monde_ had _baigne_ (including The Zulu, who tried to escape at the last
minute and was nabbed by the _planton_ whose business it was to count
heads and see that none escaped the ordeal) and now _tout le monde_ was
shivering all together in the anteroom, begging to be allowed to go
upstairs and get into bed--when La Baigneur, Monsieur Richard's strenuous
successor that is, set up a hue and cry that one towel was lacking. The
Fencer was sent for. He entered; heard the case; and made a speech. If
the guilty party would immediately return the stolen towel, he, The
Fencer, would guarantee that party pardon; if not, everyone present
should be searched, and the man on whose person the serviette was found
_va attraper quinze jours de cabinot_. This eloquence yielding no
results, The Fencer exorted the culprit to act like a man and render to
Caesar what is Caesar's. Nothing happened. Everyone was told to get in
single file and make ready to pass out the door, one after one we were
searched; but so general was the curiosity that as fast as they were
inspected the erstwhile bed-enthusiasts, myself included, gathered on the
side-lines to watch their fellows instead of availing themselves of the
opportunity to go upstairs. One after one we came opposite The Fencer,
held up our arms, had our pockets run through and our clothing felt over
from head to heel, and were exonerated. When Caesar came to Jean Caesar's
eyes lighted, and Caesar's hitherto perfunctory proddings and pokings
became inspired and methodical. Twice he went over Jean's entire body,
while Jean, his arms raised in a bored gesture, his face completely
expressionless, suffered loftily the examination of his person. A third
time the desperate Fencer tried; his hands, starting at Jean's neck,
reached the calf of his leg--and stopped. The hands rolled up Jean's
right trouser-leg to the knee. They rolled up the underwear on his
leg--and there, placed perfectly flat to the skin, appeared the missing
serviette. As The Fencer seized it, Jean laughed--the utter laughter of
old days--and the onlookers cackled uproariously, while, with a broad
smile, the Fencer proclaimed: "I thought I knew where I should find it."
And he added, more pleased with himself than anyone had ever seen him:
"_Maintenant, vous pouvez tous montez a la chambre._" We mounted, happy
to get back to bed; but none so happy as Jean le Negre. It was not that
the _cabinot_ threat had failed to materialize--at any minute a _planton_
might call Jean to his punishment: indeed this was what everyone
expected. It was that the incident had absolutely removed that inhibition
which (from the day when Jean _le noir_ became Jean _le geant_) had held
the child, which was Jean's soul and destiny, prisoner. From that instant
till the day I left him he was the old Jean--joking, fibbing, laughing,
and always playing--Jean L'Enfant.
And I think of Jean le Negre ... you are something to dream over, Jean;
summer and winter (birds and darkness) you go walking into my head; you
are a sudden and chocolate-coloured thing, in your hands you have a habit
of holding six or eight _plantons_ (which you are about to throw away)
and the flesh of your body is like the flesh of a very deep cigar. Which
I am still and always quietly smoking: always and still I am inhaling its
very fragrant and remarkable muscles. But I doubt if ever I am quite
through with you, if ever I will toss you out of my heart into the
sawdust of forgetfulness. Kid, Boy, I'd like to tell you: _la guerre est
O yes, Jean: I do not forget, I remember Plenty; the snow's coming, the
snow will throw again a very big and gentle shadow into The Enormous Room
and into the eyes of you and me walking always and wonderfully up and
--Boy, Kid, Nigger, with the strutting muscles--take me up into your mind
once or twice before I die (you know why: just because the eyes of me and
you will be full of dirt some day). Quickly take me up into the bright
child of your mind, before we both go suddenly all loose and silly (you
know how it will feel). Take me up (carefully, as if I were a toy) and
play carefully with me, once or twice, before I and you go suddenly all
limp and foolish. Once or twice before you go into great Jack roses and
ivory--(once or twice, Boy, before we together go wonderfully down into
the Big Dirt laughing, bumped with the last darkness).
THREE WISE MEN
It must have been late in November when _la commission_ arrived. _La
commission_, as I have said, visited La Ferte every three months. That is
to say, B. and I (by arriving when we did) had just escaped its clutches.
I consider this one of the luckiest things in my life.
_La commission_ arrived one morning, and began work immediately.
A list was made of _les hommes_ who were to pass _la commission_, another
of _les femmes_. These lists were given to the _planton_ with the Wooden
Hand. In order to avert any delay, those of the men whose names fell in
the first half of the list were not allowed to enjoy the usual
stimulating activities afforded by La Ferte's supreme environment: they
were, in fact, confined to The Enormous Room, subject to instant
call--moreover they were not called one by one, or as their respective
turns came, but in groups of three or four; the idea being that _la
commission_ should suffer no smallest annoyance which might be occasioned
by loss of time. There were always, in other words, eight or ten men
waiting in the upper corridor opposite a disagreeably crisp door, which
door belonged to that mysterious room wherein _la commission_ transacted
its inestimable affairs. Not more than a couple of yards away ten or
eight women waited their turns. Conversation between the men and the
women had been forbidden in the fiercest terms by Monsieur le Directeur:
nevertheless conversation spasmodically occurred, thanks to the indulgent
nature of the Wooden Hand. The Wooden Hand must have been cuckoo--he
looked it. If he wasn't I am totally at a loss to account for his
B. and I spent a morning in The Enormous Room without results, an
astonishing acquisition of nervousness excepted. _Apres la soupe_ (noon)
we were conducted _en haut_, told to leave our spoons and bread (which we
did) and--in company with several others whose names were within a
furlong of the last man called--were descended to the corridor. All that
afternoon we waited. Also we waited all next morning. We spent our time
talking quietly with a buxom pink-cheeked Belgian girl who was in
attendance as translator for one of _les femmes_. This Belgian told us
that she was a permanent inhabitant of La Ferte, that she and another
_femme honnette_ occupied a room by themselves, that her brothers were at
the front in Belgium, that her ability to speak fluently several
languages (including English and German) made her invaluable to
_Messieurs la commission_, that she had committed no crime, that she was
held as a _suspecte_, that she was not entirely unhappy. She struck me
immediately as being not only intelligent but alive. She questioned us in
excellent English as to our offenses, and seemed much pleased to discover
that we were--to all appearances--innocent of wrong-doing.
From time to time our subdued conversation was interrupted by admonitions
from the amiable Wooden Hand. Twice the door SLAMMED open, and Monsieur
le Directeur bounced out, frothing at the mouth and threatening everyone
with infinite _cabinot_, on the ground that everyone's deportment or lack
of it was menacing the aplomb of the commissioners. Each time, the Black
Holster appeared in the background and carried on his master's bullying
until everyone was completely terrified--after which we were left to
ourselves and the Wooden Hand once again.
B. and I were allowed by the latter individual--he was that day, at
least, an individual not merely a _planton_--to peek over his shoulder at
the men's list. The Wooden Hand even went so far as to escort our
editious minds to the nearness of their examination by the simple yet
efficient method of placing one of his human fingers opposite the name of
him who was (even at that moment) within, submitting to the inexorable
justice of _le gouvernement francais_. I cannot honestly say that the
discovery of this proximity of ourselves to our respective fates wholly
pleased us; yet we were so weary of waiting that it certainly did not
wholly terrify us. All in all, I think I have never been so utterly
un-at-ease as while waiting for the axe to fall, metaphorically speaking,
upon our squawking heads.
We were still conversing with the Belgian girl when a man came out of the
door unsteadily, looking as if he had submitted to several strenuous
fittings of a wooden leg upon a stump not quite healed. The Wooden Hand,
nodding at B., remarked hurriedly in a low voice:
And B. (smiling at La Belge and at me) entered. He was followed by The
Wooden Hand, as I suppose for greater security.
The next twenty minutes, or whatever it was, were by far the most
nerve-racking which I had as yet experienced. La Belge said to me:
"_Il est gentil, votre ami,_"
and I agreed. And my blood was bombarding the roots of my toes and the
summits of my hair.
After (I need not say) two or three million aeons, B. emerged. I had not
time to exchange a look with him--let alone a word--for the Wooden Hand
said from the doorway:
"_Allez, l'autre americain,_"
and I entered in more confusion than can easily be imagined; entered the
torture chamber, entered the inquisition, entered the tentacles of that
sly and beaming polyp, _le gouvernement francais_....
As I entered I said, half aloud: The thing is this, to look 'em in the
eyes and keep cool whatever happens, not for the fraction of a moment
forgetting that they are made of _merde_, that they are all of them
composed entirely of _merde_--I don't know how many inquisitors I
expected to see; but I guess I was ready for at least fifteen, among them
President Poincare Lui-meme. I hummed noiselessly:
"_si vous passez par ma vil-le
n'oubliez pas ma maison;
on y mang-e de bonne sou-pe Ton Ton Tay-ne;
faite de merde et les onions, Ton Ton Tayne Ton Ton Ton,_"
remembering the fine _forgeron_ of Chevancourt who used to sing this, or
something very like it, upon a table--entirely for the benefit of _les
deux americains_, who would subsequently render "Eats uh lonje wae to
Tee-pear-raer-ee," wholly for the gratification of a roomful of what Mr.
Anderson liked to call "them bastards," alias "dirty" Frenchmen, alias
_les poilus, les poilus divins_....
A little room. The Directeur's office? Or The Surveillant's? Comfort. O
yes, very, very comfortable. On my right a table. At the table three
persons. Reminds me of Noyon a bit, not unpleasantly of course. Three
persons: reading from left to right as I face them--a soggy, sleepy,
slumpy lump in a _gendarme's_ cape and cap, quite old, captain of
_gendarmes_, not at all interested, wrinkled coarse face, only
semi-_mechant_, large hard clumsy hands, floppingly disposed on table;
wily tidy man in civilian clothes, pen in hand, obviously lawyer,
_avocat_ type, little bald on top, sneaky civility, smells of bad perfume
or, at any rate, sweetish soap; tiny red-headed person, also civilian,
creased worrying excited face, amusing little body and hands, brief and
jumpy, must be a Dickens character, ought to spend his time sailing kites
of his own construction over other people's houses in gusty weather.
Behind the Three, all tied up with deference and inferiority, mild and
Would the reader like to know what I was asked?
Ah, would I could say! Only dimly do I remember those moments--only dimly
do I remember looking through the lawyer at Apollyon's clean collar--only
dimly do I remember the gradual collapse of the captain of _gendarmes_,
his slow but sure assumption of sleepfulness, the drooping of his soggy
_tete de cochon_ lower and lower till it encountered one hand whose
elbow, braced firmly upon the table, sustained its insensate
limpness--only dimly do I remember the enthusiastic antics of the little
red-head when I spoke with patriotic fervour of the wrongs which La
France was doing _mon ami et moi_--only dimly do I remember, to my right,
the immobility of The Wooden Hand, reminding one of a clothing dummy, or
a life-size doll which might be made to move only by him who knew the
proper combination.... At the outset I was asked: Did I want a
translator? I looked and saw the _secretaire_, weak-eyed and lemon-pale,
and I said "_Non._" I was questioned mostly by the _avocat_, somewhat by
the Dickens, never by either the captain (who was asleep) or the
Directeur (who was timid in the presence of these great and good
delegates of hope, faith and charity per the French Government). I recall
that, for some reason, I was perfectly cool. I put over six or eight hot
shots without losing in the least this composure, which surprised myself
and pleased myself and altogether increased myself. As the questions came
for me I met them half-way, spouting my best or worst French in a manner
which positively astonished the tiny red-headed demigod. I challenged
with my eyes and with my voice and with my manner Apollyon Himself, and
Apollyon Himself merely cuddled together, depressing his hairy body
between its limbs as a spider sometimes does in the presence of danger. I
expressed immense gratitude to my captors and to _le gouvernement
francais_ for allowing me to see and hear and taste and smell and touch
the things which inhabited La Ferte Mace, Orne, France. I do not think
that _la commission_ enjoyed me much. It told me, through its
sweetish-soap leader, that my friend was a criminal--this immediately
upon my entering--and I told it with a great deal of well-chosen
politeness that I disagreed. In telling how and why I disagreed I think I
managed to shove my shovel-shaped imagination under the refuse of their
intellects. At least once or twice.
Rather fatiguing--to stand up and be told: Your friend is no good; have
you anything to say for yourself?--And to say a great deal for yourself
and for your friend and for _les hommes_--or try your best to--and be
contradicted, and be told "Never mind that, what we wish to know is," and
instructed to keep to the subject, et cetera, ad infinitum. At last they
asked each other if each other wanted to ask the man before each other
anything more, and each other not wanting to do so, they said:
As at Noyon, I had made an indisputably favourable impression upon
exactly one of my three examiners. I refer, in the present case, to the
red-headed little gentleman who was rather decent to me. I do not exactly
salute him in recognition of this decency; I bow to him, as I might bow
to somebody who said he was sorry he couldn't give me a match, but there
was a cigar store just around the corner, you know.
At "_C'est fini_" the Directeur leaped into the limelight with a savage
admonition to the Wooden Hand--who saluted, opened the door suddenly, and
looked at me with (dare I say it?) admiration. Instead of availing myself
of this means of escape I turned to the little kite-flying gentleman and
"If you please, sir, will you be so good as to tell me what will become
of my friend?"
The little kite-flying gentleman did not have time to reply, for the
perfumed presence stated dryly and distinctly:
"We cannot say anything to you upon that point."
I gave him a pleasant smile, which said, If I could see your intestines
very slowly embracing a large wooden drum rotated by means of a small
iron crank turned gently and softly by myself, I should be
extraordinarily happy--and I bowed softly and gently to Monsieur le
Directeur, and I went through the door using all the perpendicular inches
which God had given me.
Once outside I began to tremble like a _peuplier_ in _l'automne_....
"_L'automne humide et monotone._"
--"_Allez en bas, pour la soupe_" the Wooden Hand said not unkindly. I
looked about me. "There will be no more men before the commission until
to-morrow," the Wooden Hand said. "Go get your dinner in the kitchen."
Afrique was all curiosity--what did they say? what did I say?--as he
placed before me a huge, a perfectly huge, an inexcusably huge plate of
something more than lukewarm grease.... B. and I ate at a very little
table in _la cuisine_, excitedly comparing notes as we swallowed the
red-hot stuff.... "_Du pain; prenez, mes amis_," Afrique said. "_Mangez
comme vous voulez_" the Cook quoth benignantly, with a glance at us over
his placid shoulder.... Eat we most surely did. We could have eaten the
The morning of the following day we went on promenade once more. It was
neither pleasant nor unpleasant to promenade in the _cour_ while somebody
else was suffering in the Room of Sorrow. It was, in fact, rather
The afternoon of this day we were all up in The Enormous Room when _la
commission_ suddenly entered with Apollyon strutting and lisping behind
it, explaining, and poo-poohing, and graciously waving his thick wicked
Everyone in The Enormous Room leaped to his feet, removing as he did so
his hat--with the exception of _les deux americains_, who kept theirs on,
and The Zulu, who couldn't find his hat and had been trying for some time
to stalk it to its lair. _La commission_ reacted interestingly to the
Enormous Room: the captain of _gendarmes_ looked soggily around and saw
nothing with a good deal of contempt; the scented soap squinted up his
face and said, "Faugh!" or whatever a French bourgeois _avocat_ says in
the presence of a bad smell (_la commission_ was standing by the door and
consequently close to the _cabinet_); but the little red-head kite-flying
gentleman looked actually horrified.
"Is there in the room anyone of Austrian nationality?"
The Silent Man stepped forward quietly.
"Why are you here?"
"I don't know," The Silent Man said, with tears in his eyes.
"NONSENSE! You're here for a very good reason and you know what it is and
you could tell it if you wished, you imbecile, you incorrigible, you
criminal," Apollyon shouted; then, turning to the _avocat_ and the
red-headed little gentleman, "He is a dangerous alien, he admits it, he
has admitted it--DON'T YOU ADMIT IT, EH? EH?" he roared at The Silent
Man, who fingered his black cap without raising his eyes or changing in
the least the simple and supreme dignity of his poise. "He is
incorrigible," said (in a low snarl) The Directeur. "Let us go,
gentlemen, when you have seen enough." But the red-headed man, as I
recollect, was contemplating the floor by the door, where six pails of
urine solemnly stood, three of them having overflowed slightly from time
to time upon the reeking planks.... And The Directeur was told that _les
hommes_ should have a tin trough to urinate into, for the sake of
sanitation; and that this trough should be immediately installed,
installed without delay--"O yes, indeed, sirs," Apollyon simpered, "a
very good suggestion; it shall be done immediately: yes, indeed. Do let
me show you the--it's just outside--" and he bowed them out with no
little skill. And the door SLAMMED behind Apollyon and the Three Wise
This, as I say, must have occurred toward the last of November.
For a week we waited.
Fritz, having waited months for a letter from the Danish consul in reply
to the letters which he, Fritz, wrote every so often and sent through _le
bureau_--meaning the _secretaire_--had managed to get news of his
whereabouts to said consul by unlawful means; and was immediately, upon
reception of this news by the consul, set free and invited to join a ship
at the nearest port. His departure (than which a more joyous I have never
witnessed) has been already mentioned in connection with the third
Delectable Mountain, as has been the departure for Precigne of Pom Pom
and Harree ensemble. Bill the Hollander, Monsieur Pet-airs, Mexique, The
Wanderer, the little Machine-Fixer, Pete, Jean le Negre, The Zulu and
Monsieur Auguste (second time) were some of our remaining friends who
passed the commission with us. Along with ourselves and these fine people
were judged gentlemen like the Trick Raincoat and the Fighting Sheeney.
One would think, possibly, that Justice--in the guise of the Three Wise
Men--would have decreed different fates, to (say) The Wanderer and The
Fighting Sheeney. _Au contraire_. As I have previously remarked, the ways
of God and of the good and great French Government are alike inscrutable.
Bill the Hollander, whom we had grown to like, whereas at first we were
inclined to fear him, Bill the Hollander who washed some towels and
handkerchiefs and what-nots for us and turned them a bright pink, Bill
the Hollander who had tried so hard to teach The Young Pole the lesson
which he could only learn from The Fighting Sheeney, left us about a week
after _la commission_. As I understand it, they decided to send him back
to Holland under guard in order that he might be jailed in his native
land as a deserter. It is beautiful to consider the unselfishness of _le
gouvernement francais_ in this case. Much as _le gouvernement francais_
would have liked to have punished Bill on its own account and for its own
enjoyment, it gave him up--with a Christian smile--to the punishing
clutches of a sister or brother government: without a murmur denying
itself the incense of his sufferings and the music of his sorrows. Then
too it is really inspiring to note the perfect collaboration of _la
justice francaise_ and _la justice hollandaise_ in a critical moment of
the world's history. Bill certainly should feel that it was a great
honour to be allowed to exemplify this wonderful accord, this exquisite
mutual understanding, between the punitive departments of two nations
superficially somewhat unrelated--that is, as regards customs and
language. I fear Bill didn't appreciate the intrinsic usefulness of his
destiny. I seem to remember that he left in a rather _Gottverdummerish_
condition. Such is ignorance.
Poor Monsieur Pet-airs came out of the commission looking extraordinarily
_epate_. Questioned, he averred that his penchant for inventing
forcepumps had prejudiced _ces messieurs_ in his disfavour; and shook his
poor old head and sniffed hopelessly. Mexique exited in a placidly
cheerful condition, shrugging his shoulders and remarking:
"I no do nut'ing. Dese fellers tell me wait few days, after you go free,"
whereas Pete looked white and determined and said little--except in Dutch
to the Young Skipper and his mate; which pair took _la commission_ more
or less as a healthy bull calf takes nourishment: there was little doubt
that they would refind _la liberte_ in a short while, judging from the
inability of the Three Wise Men to prove them even suspicious characters.
The Zulu uttered a few inscrutable gestures made entirely of silence and
said he would like us to celebrate the accomplishment of this ordeal by
buying ourselves and himself a good fat cheese apiece--his friend The
Young Pole looked as if the ordeal had scared the life out of him
temporarily; he was unable to say whether or no he and "_mon ami_" would
leave us: _la commission_ had adopted, in the case of these twain, an
awe-inspiring taciturnity. Jean Le Negre, who was one of the last to
pass, had had a tremendously exciting time, due to the fact that _le
gouvernement francais's_ polished tools had failed to scratch his mystery
either in French or English--he came dancing and singing toward us; then,
suddenly suppressing every vestige of emotion, solemnly extended for our
approval a small scrap of paper on which was written:
remarking: "_Qu-est-ce que ca veut dire?_"--and when we read the word for
him, "_m'en vais a Calais, moi, travailler a Calais, tres bon!_"--with a
jump and a shout of laughter pocketing the scrap and beginning the Song
"_apres la guerre finit...._"
A trio which had been hit and hard hit by the Three Wise Men were, or
was, The Wanderer and the Machine-Fixer and Monsieur Auguste--the former
having been insulted in respect to Chocolat's mother (who also occupied
the witness-stand) and having retaliated, as nearly as we could discover,
with a few remarks straight from the shoulder a propos Justice (O
Wanderer, did you expect honour among the honourable?); the Machine-Fixer
having been told to shut up in the midst of a passionate plea for mercy,
or at least fair-play, if not in his own case in the case of the wife who
was crazed by his absence; Monsieur Auguste having been asked (as he had
been asked three months before by the honorable commissioners), Why did
you not return to Russia with your wife and your child at the outbreak of
the war?--and having replied, with tears in his eyes and that gentle
ferocity of which he was occasionally capable:
"Be-cause I didn't have the means. I am not a mil-lion-aire, Sirs."
The Baby-Snatcher, the Trick Raincoat, the Messenger Boy, the Fighting
Sheeney and similar gentry passed the commission without the slightest
apparent effect upon their disagreeable personalities.
It was not long after Bill the Hollander's departure that we lost two
Delectable Mountains in The Wanderer and Surplice. Remained The Zulu and
Jean le Negre.... B. and I spent most of our time when on promenade
collecting rather beautifully hued leaves in _la cour_. These leaves we
inserted in one of my notebooks, along with all the colours which we
could find on cigarette boxes, chocolate wrappers, labels of various
sorts and even postage stamps. (We got a very brilliant red from a
certain piece of cloth.) Our efforts puzzled everyone (including the
_plantons_) more than considerably; which was natural, considering that
everyone did not know that by this exceedingly simple means we were
effecting a study of colour itself, in relation to what is popularly
called "abstract" and sometimes "non-representative" painting. Despite
their natural puzzlement everyone (_plantons_ excepted) was
extraordinarily kind and brought us often valuable additions to our
chromatic collection. Had I, at this moment and in the city of New York,
the complete confidence of one-twentieth as many human beings I should
not be so inclined to consider The Great American Public as the most
aesthetically incapable organization ever created for the purpose of
perpetuating defunct ideals and ideas. But of course The Great American
Public has a handicap which my friends at La Ferte did not as a rule
have--education. Let no one sound his indignant yawp at this. I refer to
the fact that, for an educated gent or lady, to create is first of all to
destroy--that there is and can be no such thing as authentic art until
the _bons trucs_ (whereby we are taught to see and imitate on canvas and
in stone and by words this so-called world) are entirely and thoroughly
and perfectly annihilated by that vast and painful process of Unthinking
which may result in a minute bit of purely personal Feeling. Which minute
bit is Art.
Ah well, the revolution--I refer of course to the intelligent
revolution--is on the way; is perhaps nearer than some think, is possibly
knocking at the front doors of The Great Mister Harold Bell Wright and
The Great Little Miss Pollyanna. In the course of the next ten thousand
years it may be possible to find Delectable Mountains without going to
prison--captivity, I mean, Monsieur le Surveillant--it may be possible, I
daresay, to encounter Delectable Mountains who are not in prison....
The Autumn wore on.
Rain did, from time to time, not fall: from time to time a sort of
unhealthy almost-light leaked from the large uncrisp corpse of the sky,
returning for a moment to our view the ruined landscape. From time to
time the eye, travelling carefully with a certain disagreeable suddenly
fear no longer distances of air, coldish and sweet, stopped upon the
incredible clearness of the desolate, without-motion, Autumn. Awkward and
solemn clearness, making louder the unnecessary cries, the hoarse
laughter of the invisible harlots in their muddy yard, pointing a cool
actual finger at the silly and ferocious group of man-shaped beings
huddled in the mud under four or five little trees, came strangely in my
own mind pleasantly to suggest the ludicrous and hideous and beautiful
antics of the insane. Frequently I would discover so perfect a command
over myself as to reduce _la promenade_ easily to a recently invented
mechanism; or to the demonstration of a collection of vivid and unlovely
toys around and around which, guarding them with impossible heroism,
funnily moved purely unreal _plantons_ always absurdly marching, the
maimed and stupid dolls of my imagination. Once I was sitting alone on
the long beam of silent iron and suddenly had the gradual complete unique
experience of death....
It became amazingly cold.
One evening B. and myself and, I think it was the Machine-Fixer, were
partaking of the warmth of a _bougie_ hard by and, in fact, between our
ambulance beds, when the door opened, a _planton_ entered, and a list of
names (none of which we recognized) was hurriedly read off with (as in
the case of the last _partis_, including The Wanderer and Surplice) the
"Be ready to leave early to-morrow morning."
--and the door shut loudly and quickly. Now one of the names which had
been called sounded somewhat like "Broom," and a strange inquietude
seized us on this account. Could it possibly have been "B."? We made
inquiries of certain of our friends who had been nearer the _planton_
than ourselves. We were told that Pete and The Trick Raincoat and The
Fighting Sheeney and Rockyfeller were leaving--about "B." nobody was able
to enlighten us. Not that opinions in this matter were lacking. There was
plenty of opinions--but they contradicted each other to a painful extent.
_Les hommes_ were in fact about equally divided; half considering that
the occult sound had been intended for "B.," half that the somewhat
asthmatic _planton_ had unwittingly uttered a spontaneous grunt or sigh,
which sigh or grunt we had mistaken for a proper noun. Our uncertainty
was augmented by the confusion emanating from a particular corner of The
Enormous Room, in which corner The Fighting Sheeney was haranguing a
group of spectators on the pregnant topic: What I won't do to Precigne
when I get there. In deep converse with Bathhouse John we beheld the very
same youth who, some time since, had drifted to a place beside me at _la
soupe_--Pete The Ghost, white and determined, blond and fragile: Pete the
I forget who, but someone--I think it was the little
Machine-Fixer--established the truth that an American was to leave the
next morning. That, moreover, said American's name was B.
Whereupon B. and I became extraordinarily busy.
The Zulu and Jean le Negre, upon learning that B. was among the _partis_,
came over to our beds and sat down without uttering a word. The former,
through a certain shy orchestration of silence, conveyed effortlessly and
perfectly his sorrow at the departure; the latter, by his bowed head and
a certain very delicate restraint manifested in the wholly exquisite
poise of his firm alert body, uttered at least a universe of grief.
The little Machine-Fixer was extremely indignant; not only that his
friend was going to a den of thieves and ruffians, but that his friend
was leaving in such company as that of _ce crapule_ (meaning Rockyfeller)
and _les deux mangeurs de blanc_ (to wit, The Trick Raincoat and The
Fighting Sheeney). "_c'est malheureux_," he repeated over and over,
wagging his poor little head in rage and despair--"it's no place for a
young man who has done no wrong, to be shut up with pimps and cutthroats,
_pour la duree de la guerre; le gouvernement francais a bien fait!_" and
he brushed a tear out of his eye with a desperate rapid brittle
gesture.... But what angered the Machine-Fixer most was that B. and I
were about to be separated--"_M'sieu' Jean_" (touching me gently on the
knee) "they have no hearts, _la commission_; they are not simply unjust,
they are cruel, _savez-vous_? Men are not like these; they are not men,
they are Name of God I don't know what, they are worse than the animals;
and they pretend to Justice" (shivering from top to toe with an
indescribable sneer) "Justice! My God, Justice!"
All of which, somehow or other, did not exactly cheer us.
And, the packing completed, we drank together for The Last Time. The Zulu
and Jean Le Negre and the Machine-Fixer and B. and I--and Pete The Shadow
drifted over, whiter than I think I ever saw him, and said simply to me:
"I'll take care o' your friend, Johnny."
... and then at last it was _lumieres eteintes_; and _les deux
americains_ lay in their beds in the cold rotten darkness, talking in low
voices of the past, of Petroushka, of Paris, of that brilliant and
extraordinary and impossible something: Life.
Morning. Whitish. Inevitable. Deathly cold.
There was a great deal of hurry and bustle in The Enormous Room. People
were rushing hither and thither in the heavy half-darkness. People were
saying good-bye to people. Saying good-bye to friends. Saying good-bye to
themselves. We lay and sipped the black evil dull certainly not coffee;
lay on our beds, dressed, shuddering with cold, waiting. Waiting. Several
of _les hommes_ whom we scarcely knew came up to B. and shook hands with
him and said good luck and good-bye. The darkness was going rapidly out
of the dull black evil stinking air. B. suddenly realized that he had no
gift for The Zulu; he asked a fine Norwegian to whom he had given his
leather belt if he, the Norwegian, would mind giving it back, because
there was a very dear friend who had been forgotten. The Norwegian, with
a pleasant smile, took off the belt and said "Certainly" ... he had been
arrested at Bordeaux, where he came ashore from his ship, for stealing
three cans of sardines when he was drunk ... a very great and dangerous
criminal ... he said "Certainly," and gave B. a pleasant smile, the
pleasantest smile in the world. B. wrote his own address and name in the
inside of the belt, explained in French to The Young Pole that any time
The Zulu wanted to reach him all he had to do was to consult the belt;
The Young Pole translated; The Zulu nodded; The Norwegian smiled
appreciatively; The Zulu received the belt with a gesture to which words
cannot do the faintest justice--
A _planton_ was standing in The Enormous Room, a _planton_ roaring and
cursing and crying, "Hurry, those who are going to go."--B. shook hands
with Jean and Mexique and the Machine-Fixer and the Young Skipper, and
Bathhouse John (to whom he had given his ambulance tunic, and who was
crazy-proud in consequence) and the Norwegian and the Washing Machine Man
and The Hat and many of _les hommes_ whom we scarcely knew.--The Black
Holster was roaring:
"_Allez, nom de Dieu, l'americain!_"
I went down the room with B. and Pete, and shook hands with both at the
door. The other _partis_, alias The Trick Raincoat and The Fighting
Sheeney, were already on the way downstairs. The Black Holster cursed us
and me in particular and slammed the door angrily in my face--
Through the little peephole I caught a glimpse of them, entering the
street. I went to my bed and lay down quietly in my great _pelisse_. The
clamour and filth of the room brightened and became distant and faded. I
heard the voice of the jolly Alsatian saying:
"_Courage, mon ami_, your comrade is not dead; you will see him later,"
and after that, nothing. In front of and on and within my eyes lived
suddenly a violent and gentle and dark silence.
The Three Wise Men had done their work. But wisdom cannot rest....
Probably at that very moment they were holding their court in another La
Ferte committing to incomparable anguish some few merely perfectly
wretched criminals: little and tall, tremulous and brave--all of them
white and speechless, all of them with tight bluish lips and large
whispering eyes, all of them with fingers weary and mutilated and
extraordinarily old ... desperate fingers; closing, to feel the final
luke-warm fragment of life glide neatly and softly into forgetfulness.
I SAY GOOD-BYE TO LA MISERE
To convince the reader that this history is mere fiction (and rather
vulgarly violent fiction at that) nothing perhaps is needed save that
ancient standby of sob-story writers and thrill-artists alike--the Happy
Ending. As a matter of fact, it makes not the smallest difference to me
whether anyone who has thus far participated in my travels does or does
not believe that they and I are (as that mysterious animal, "the public"
would say) "real." I do, however, very strenuously object to the
assumption, on the part of anyone, that the heading of this, my final,
chapter stands for anything in the nature of happiness. In the course of
recalling (in God knows a rather clumsy and perfectly inadequate way)
what happened to me between the latter part of August, 1917, and the
first of January, 1918, I have proved to my own satisfaction (if not to
anyone else's) that I was happier in La Ferte Mace, with The Delectable
Mountains about me, than the very keenest words can pretend to express. I
daresay it all comes down to a definition of happiness. And a definition
of happiness I most certainly do not intend to attempt; but I can and
will say this: to leave La Misere with the knowledge, and worse than that
the feeling, that some of the finest people in the world are doomed to
remain prisoners thereof for no one knows how long--are doomed to
continue, possibly for years and tens of years and all the years which
terribly are between them and their deaths, the grey and indivisible
Non-existence which without apology you are quitting for Reality--cannot
by any stretch of the imagination be conceived as constituting a Happy
Ending to a great and personal adventure. That I write this chapter at
all is due, purely and simply, to the, I daresay, unjustified hope on my
part that--by recording certain events--it may hurl a little additional
light into a very tremendous darkness....
At the outset let me state that what occurred subsequent to the departure
for Precigne of B. and Pete and The Sheeneys and Rockyfeller is shrouded
in a rather ridiculous indistinctness; due, I have to admit, to the
depression which this departure inflicted upon my altogether too human
nature. The judgment of the Three Wise Men had--to use a peculiarly
vigorous (not to say vital) expression of my own day and time--knocked me
for a loop. I spent the days intervening between the separation from
"_votre camarade_" and my somewhat supernatural departure for freedom in
attempting to partially straighten myself. When finally I made my exit,
the part of me popularly referred to as "mind" was still in a slightly
bent if not twisted condition. Not until some weeks of American diet had
revolutionized my exterior did my interior completely resume the contours
of normality. I am particularly neither ashamed nor proud of this (one
might nearly say) mental catastrophe. No more ashamed or proud, in fact,
than of the infection of three fingers which I carried to America as a
little token of La Ferte's good-will. In the latter case I certainly have
no right to boast, even should I find myself so inclined; for B. took
with him to Precigne a case of what his father, upon B.'s arrival in The
Home of The Brave, diagnosed as scurvy--which scurvy made my mutilations
look like thirty cents or even less. One of my vividest memories of La
Ferte consists in a succession of crackling noises associated with the
disrobing of my friend. I recall that we appealed to Monsieur Ree-chard
together, B. in behalf of his scurvy and I in behalf of my hand plus a
queer little row of sores, the latter having proceeded to adorn that part
of my face which was trying hard to be graced with a moustache. I recall
that Monsieur Ree-chard decreed a _bain_ for B., which _bain_ meant
immersion in a large tin tub partially filled with not quite luke-warm
water. I, on the contrary, obtained a speck of zinc ointment on a minute
piece of cotton, and considered myself peculiarly fortunate. Which
details cannot possibly offend the reader's aesthetic sense to a greater
degree than have already certain minutiae connected with the sanitary
arrangements of The Directeur's little home for homeless boys and
girls--therefore I will not trouble to beg the reader's pardon; but will
proceed with my story proper or improper.
"_Mais qu'est-ce que vous avez_," Monsieur le Surveillant demanded, in a
tone of profound if kindly astonishment, as I wended my lonely way to _la
soupe_ some days after the disappearance of _les partis_.
I stood and stared at him very stupidly without answering, having indeed
nothing at all to say.
"But why are you so sad?" he asked.
"I suppose I miss my friend," I ventured.
"_Mais--mais--_" he puffed and panted like a very old and fat person
trying to persuade a bicycle to climb a hill--"_mais--vous avez de la
"I suppose I have," I said without enthusiasm.
"_Mais--mais--parfaitement--vous avez de la
"Uh-ah!" I said wearily.
"Whereas," continued Monsieur, "you haven't. You ought to be
extraordinarily thankful and particularly happy!"
"I should rather have gone to prison with my friend," I stated briefly;
and went into the dining-room, leaving the Surveillant uh-ahing in
nothing short of complete amazement.
I really believe that my condition worried him, incredible as this may
seem. At the time I gave neither an extraordinary nor a particular damn
about Monsieur le Surveillant, nor indeed about "_l'autre americain_"
alias myself. Dimly, through a fog of disinterested inapprehension, I
realized that--with the exception of the _plantons_ and, of course,
Apollyon--everyone was trying very hard to help me; that The Zulu, Jean,
The Machine-Fixer, Mexique, The Young Skipper, even The Washing Machine
Man (with whom I promenaded frequently when no one else felt like taking
the completely unagreeable air) were kind, very kind, kinder than I can
possibly say. As for Afrique and The Cook--there was nothing too good for
me at this time. I asked the latter's permission to cut wood, and was not
only accepted as a sawyer, but encouraged with assurances of the best
coffee there was, with real sugar _dedans_. In the little space outside
the _cuisine_, between the building and _la cour_, I sawed away of a
morning to my great satisfaction; from time to time clumping my _saboted_
way into the _chef's_ domain in answer to a subdued signal from Afrique.
Of an afternoon I sat with Jean or Mexique or The Zulu on the long beam
of silent iron, pondering very carefully nothing at all, replying to
their questions or responding to their observations in a highly
mechanical manner. I felt myself to be, at last, a doll--taken out
occasionally and played with and put back into its house and told to go
One afternoon I was lying on my couch, thinking of the usual Nothing,
when a sharp cry sung through The Enormous Room:
"_Il tombe de la neige--Noel! Noel!_"
I sat up. The Guard Champetre was at the nearest window, dancing a little
horribly and crying:
I went to another window and looked out. Sure enough. Snow was falling,
gradually and wonderfully falling, silently falling through the thick
soundless Autumn.... It seemed to me supremely beautiful, the snow. There
was about it something unspeakably crisp and exquisite, something perfect
and minute and gentle and fatal.... The Guard Champetre's cry began a
poem in the back of my head, a poem about the snow, a poem in French,
beginning _Il tombe de la neige, Noel, Noel._ I watched the snow. After a
long time I returned to my bunk and I lay down, closing my eyes; feeling
the snow's minute and crisp touch falling gently and exquisitely, falling
perfectly and suddenly, through the thick soundless autumn of my
Someone is speaking to me.
"_Le petit belge avec le bras casse est la-bas, a la porte, il veut
I marched the length of the room. The Enormous Room is filled with a new
and beautiful darkness, the darkness of the snow outside, falling and
falling and falling with the silent and actual gesture which has touched
the soundless country of my mind as a child touches a toy it loves....
Through the locked door I heard a nervous whisper: "_Dis a l'americain
que je veux parler avec lui._"--"_Me voici_" I said.
"Put your ear to the key-hole, _M'sieu' Jean_," said the Machine-Fixer's
voice. The voice of the little Machine-Fixer, tremendously excited. I
obey--"_Alors. Qu'est-ce que c'est, mon ami?_"
"_M'sieu' Jean! Le Directeur va vous appeler tout de suite!_ You must get
ready instantly! Wash and shave, eh? He's going to call you right away.
And don't forget! Oloron! You will ask to go to Oloron Sainte Marie,
where you can paint! Oloron Sainte Marie, Basse Pyrenees! _N'oubliez pas,
M'sieu' Jean! Et depechez-vous!_"
"_Merci bien, mon ami!_"--I remember now. The little Machine-Fixer and I
had talked. It seemed that _la commission_ had decided that I was not a
criminal, but only a suspect. As a suspect I would be sent to some place
in France, any place I wanted to go, provided it was not on or near the
sea coast. That was in order that I should not perhaps try to escape from
France. The Machine-Fixer had advised me to ask to go to Oloron Sainte
Marie. I should say that, as a painter, the Pyrenees particularly
appealed to me. "_Et qu'il fait beau, la-bas!_ The snow on the mountains!
And it's not cold. And what mountains! You can live there very cheaply.
As a suspect you will merely have to report once a month to the chief of
police of Oloron Sainte Marie; he's an old friend of mine! He's a fine,
fat, red-cheeked man, very kindly. He will make it easy for you, _M'sieu'
Jean_, and will help you out in every way, when you tell him you are a
friend of the little Belgian with the broken arm. Tell him I sent you.
You will have a very fine time, and you can paint: such scenery to paint!
My God--not like what you see from these windows. I advise you by all
means to ask to go to Oloron."
So thinking I lathered my face, standing before Judas' mirror.
"You don't rub enough," the Alsatian advised, "_il faut frotter bien!_" A
number of fellow-captives were regarding my toilet with surprise and
satisfaction. I discovered in the mirror an astounding beard and a good
layer of dirt. I worked busily, counselled by several voices, censured by
the Alsatian, encouraged by Judas himself. The shave and the wash
completed I felt considerably refreshed.
"_L'americain en bas!_" It was the Black Holster. I carefully adjusted my
tunic and obeyed him.
The Directeur and the Surveillant were in consultation when I entered the
latter's office. Apollyon, seated at a desk, surveyed me very fiercely.
His subordinate swayed to and fro, clasping and unclasping his hands
behind his back, and regarded me with an expression of almost
benevolence. The Black Holster guarded the doorway.
Turning on me ferociously: "Your friend is wicked, very wicked,
SAVEZ-VOUS?" Le Directeur shouted.
I answered quietly: "Oui? Je ne le savait pas."
"He is a bad fellow, a criminal, a traitor, an insult to civilization,"
Apollyon roared into my face.
"Yes?" I said again.
"You'd better be careful!" the Directeur shouted. "Do you know what's
happened to your friend?"
"_Sais pas_," I said.
"He's gone to prison where he belongs!" Apollyon roared. "Do you
understand what that means?"
"Perhaps," I answered, somewhat insolently I fear.
"You're lucky not to be there with him! Do you understand?" Monsieur Le
Directeur thundered, "and next time pick your friends better, take more
care, I tell you, or you'll go where he is--TO PRISON FOR THE REST OF THE
"With my friend I should be well content in prison!" I said evenly,
trying to keep looking through him and into the wall behind his black,
big, spidery body.
"In God's Name, what a fool!" the Directeur bellowed furiously--and the
Surveillant remarked pacifyingly: "He loves his comrade too much, that's
all."--"But his comrade is a traitor and a villain!" objected the Fiend,
at the top of his harsh voice--"_Comprenez-vous; votre ami est UN
SALOP!_" he snarled at me.
He seems afraid that I don't get his idea, I said to myself. "I
understand what you say," I assured him.
"And you don't believe it?" he screamed, showing his fangs and otherwise
looking like an exceedingly dangerous maniac.
"_Je ne le crois fas, Monsieur_."
"O God's name!" he shouted. "What a fool, _quel idiot_, what a beastly
fool!" And he did something through his froth-covered lips, something
remotely suggesting laughter.
Hereupon the Surveillant again intervened. I was mistaken. It was
lamentable. I could not be made to understand. Very true. But I had been
sent for--"Do you know, you have been decided to be a suspect?" Monsieur
le Surveillant turned to me, "and now you may choose where you wish to be
sent." Apollyon was blowing and wheezing and muttering ... clenching his
huge pinkish hands.
I addressed the Surveillant, ignoring Apollyon. "I should like, if I may,
to go to Oloron Sainte Marie."
"What do you want to go there for?" the Directeur exploded threateningly.
I explained that I was by profession an artist, and had always wanted to
view the Pyrenees. "The environment of Oloron would be most stimulating
to an artist--"
"Do you know it's near Spain?" he snapped, looking straight at me.
I knew it was, and therefore replied with a carefully childish ignorance:
"Spain? Indeed! Very interesting."
"You want to escape from France, that's it?" the Directeur snarled.
"Oh, I hardly should say that!" the Surveillant interposed soothingly;
"he is an artist, and Oloron is a very pleasant place for an artist. A
very nice place, I hardly think his choice of Oloron a cause for
suspicion. I should think it a very natural desire on his part."--His
superior subsided snarling.
After a few more questions I signed some papers which lay on the desk,
and was told by Apollyon to get out.
"When can I expect to leave?" I asked the Surveillant.
"Oh, it's only a matter of days, of weeks perhaps," he assured me
"You'll leave when it's proper for you to leave!" Apollyon burst out. "Do
"Yes, indeed. Thank you very much," I replied with a bow, and exited. On
the way to The Enormous Room the Black Holster said to me sharply:
"_Vous allez partir?_"
He gave me such a look as would have turned a mahogany piano leg into a
mound of smoking ashes, and slammed the key into the lock.
--Everyone gathered about me. "What news?"
"I have asked to go to Oloron as a suspect," I answered.
"You should have taken my advice and asked to go to Cannes," the fat
Alsatian reproached me. He had indeed spent a great while advising me;
but I trusted the little Machine-Fixer.
"_Parti?_" Jean le Negre said with huge eyes, touching me gently.
"No, no. Later, perhaps; not now," I assured him. And he patted my
shoulder and smiled, "_Bon!_" And we smoked a cigarette in honour of the
snow, of which Jean--in contrast to the majority of _les hommes_--highly
and unutterably approved. "_C'est jolie!_" he would say, laughing
wonderfully. And next morning he and I went on an exclusive promenade, I
in my _sabots_, Jean in a new pair of slippers which he had received
(after many requests) from the _bureau_. And we strode to and fro in the
muddy _cour_ admiring _la neige_, not speaking.
One day, after the snowfall, I received from Paris a complete set of
Shakespeare in the Everyman edition. I had forgotten completely that B.
and I--after trying and failing to get William Blake--had ordered and
paid for the better-known William; the ordering and communicating in
general being done with the collaboration of Monsieur Pet-airs. It was a
curious and interesting feeling which I experienced upon first opening to
"As You Like It" ... the volumes had been carefully inspected, I learned,
by the _secretaire_, in order to eliminate the possibility of their
concealing something valuable or dangerous. And in this connection let me
add that the _secretaire_ or (if not he) his superiors, were a good judge
of what is valuable--if not what is dangerous. I know this because,
whereas my family several times sent me socks in every case enclosing
cigarettes, I received invariably the former sans the latter. Perhaps it
is not fair to suspect the officials of La Ferte of this peculiarly mean
theft; I should, possibly, doubt the honesty of that very same French
censor whose intercepting of B.'s correspondence had motivated our
removal from the Section Sanitaire. Heaven knows I wish (like the Three
Wise Men) to give justice where justice is due.
Somehow or other, reading Shakespeare did not appeal to my disordered
mind. I tried Hamlet and Julius Caesar once or twice, and gave it up,
after telling a man who asked "Shah-kay-spare, who is Shah-kay-spare?"
that Mr. S. was the Homer of the English-speaking peoples--which remark,
to my surprise, appeared to convey a very definite idea to the questioner
and sent him away perfectly satisfied. Most of the timeless time I spent
promenading in the rain and sleet with Jean le Negre, or talking with
Mexique, or exchanging big gifts of silence with The Zulu. For Oloron--I
did not believe in it, and I did not particularly care. If I went away,
good; if I stayed, so long as Jean and The Zulu and Mexique were with me,
good. "_M'en fou pas mal_," pretty nearly summed up my philosophy.
At least the Surveillant let me alone on the Soi-Meme topic. After my
brief visit to Satan I wallowed in a perfect luxury of dirt. And no one
objected. On the contrary everyone (realizing that the enjoyment of dirt
may be made the basis of a fine art) beheld with something like
admiration my more and more uncouth appearance. Moreover, by being
dirtier than usual I was protesting in a (to me) very satisfactory way
against all that was neat and tidy and bigoted and solemn and founded
upon the anguish of my fine friends. And my fine friends, being my fine
friends, understood. Simultaneously with my arrival at the summit of
dirtiness--by the calendar, as I guess, December the twenty-first--came
the Black Holster into The Enormous Room and with an excited and angry
mien proclaimed loudly:
"_L'americain! Allez chez le Directeur. De suite._"
I protested mildly that I was dirty.
"_N'importe. Allez avec moi_," and down I went to the amazement of
everyone and the great amazement of myself. "By Jove! wait till he sees
me this time," I remarked half-audibly....
The Directeur said nothing when I entered.
The Directeur extended a piece of paper, which I read.
The Directeur said, with an attempt at amiability: "_Alors, vous allez
I looked at him in eleven-tenths of amazement. I was standing in the
bureau de Monsieur le Directeur du Camp de Triage de la Ferte Mace, Orne,
France, and holding in my hand a slip of paper which said that if there
was a man named Edward E. Cummings he should report immediately to the
American Embassy, Paris, and I had just heard the words:
"Well, you are going to leave."
Which words were pronounced in a voice so subdued, so constrained, so
mild, so altogether ingratiating, that I could not imagine to whom it
belonged. Surely not to the Fiend, to Apollyon, to the Prince of Hell, to
Satan, to Monsieur le Directeur du Camp de Triage de la Ferte Mace--
"Get ready. You will leave immediately."
Then I noticed the Surveillant. Upon his face I saw an almost smile. He
returned my gaze and remarked:
"_Uh-ah, uh-ah, Oui._"
"That's all," the Directeur said. "You will call for your money at the
_bureau_ of the Gestionnaire before leaving."
"Go and get ready," the Fencer said, and I certainly saw a smile....
"I? Am? Going? To? Paris?" somebody who certainly wasn't myself remarked
in a kind of whisper.
"_Parfaitement._"--Pettish. Apollyon. But how changed. Who the devil is
myself? Where in Hell am I? What is Paris--a place, a somewhere, a city,
life; (to live: infinitive. Present first singular: I live. Thou livest).
The Directeur. The Surveillant. La Ferte Mace, Orne, France. "Edward E.
Cummings will report immediately." Edward E. Cummings. The Surveillant. A
piece of yellow paper. The Directeur. A necktie. Paris. Life. _Liberte_.
_La liberte_. "_La Liberte!_" I almost shouted in agony.
"_Depechez-vous. Savez-vous, vous allez partir de suite. Cet apres-midi.
I turned, I turned so suddenly as almost to bowl over the Black Holster,
Black Holster and all; I turned toward the door, I turned upon the Black
Holster, I turned into Edward E. Cummings, I turned into what was dead
and is now alive, I turned into a city, I turned into a dream--
I am standing in The Enormous Room for the last time. I am saying
good-bye. No, it is not I who am saying good-bye. It is in fact somebody
else, possibly myself. Perhaps myself has shaken hands with a little
creature with a wizened arm, a little creature in whose eyes tears for
some reason are; with a placid youth (Mexique?) who smiles and says
"Good-bye, Johnny; I no for-get you,"
with a crazy old fellow who somehow or other has got inside B.'s tunic
and is gesticulating and crying out and laughing; with a frank-eyed boy
who claps me on the back and says:
"Good-bye and good luck t'you"
(is he The Young Skipper, by any chance?); with a lot of hungry wretched
beautiful people--I have given my bed to The Zulu, by Jove! and The Zulu
is even now standing guard over it, and his friend The Young Pole has
given me the address of "_mon ami_," and there are tears in The Young
Pole's eyes, and I seem to be amazingly tall and altogether tearless--and
this is the nice Norwegian, who got drunk at Bordeaux and stole three (or
four was it?) cans of sardines ... and now I feel before me someone who
also has tears in his eyes, someone who is in fact crying, someone whom I
feel to be very strong and young as he hugs me quietly in his firm, alert
arms, kissing me on both cheeks and on the lips....
--O good-bye, good-bye, I am going away, Jean; have a good time, laugh
wonderfully when _la neige_ comes....
And I am standing somewhere with arms lifted up. "_Si vous avez une
lettre, sais-tu, il faut dire._ For if I find a letter on you it will go
hard with the man that gave it to you to take out." Black. The Black
Holster even. Does not examine my baggage. Wonder why? "_Allez!_" Jean's
letter to his gonzesse in Paris still safe in my little pocket under my
belt. Ha, ha, by God, that's a good one on you, you Black Holster, you
Very Black Holster. That's a good one. Glad I said good-bye to the cook.
Why didn't I give Monsieur Auguste's little friend, the _cordonnier_,
more than six francs for mending my shoes? He looked so injured. I am a
fool, and I am going into the street, and I am going by myself with no
_planton_ into the little street of the little city of La Ferte Mace
which is a little, a very little city in France, where once upon a time I
used to catch water for an old man....
I have already shaken hands with the Cook, and with the _cordonnier_ who
has beautifully mended my shoes. I am saying good-bye to _les deux
balayeurs_. I am shaking hands with the little (the very little)
Machine-Fixer again. I have again given him a franc and I have given
Garibaldi a franc. We had a drink a moment ago on me. The tavern is just
opposite the gare, where there will soon be a train. I will get upon the
soonness of the train and ride into the now of Paris. No, I must change
at a station called Briouse did you say, Good-bye, _mes amis, et bonne
chance!_ They disappear, pulling and pushing a cart _les deux balayeurs
... de mes couilles ..._ by Jove what a tin noise is coming, see the
wooden engineer, he makes a funny gesture utterly composed (composed
silently and entirely) of _merde_. _Merde!_ _Merde._ A wee tiny absurd
whistle coming from nowhere, from outside of me. Two men opposite. Jolt.
A few houses, a fence, a wall, a bit of _neige_ float foolishly by and
through a window. These gentlemen in my compartment do not seem to know
that La Misere exists. They are talking politics. Thinking that I don't
understand. By Jesus, that's a good one. "Pardon me, gentlemen, but does
one change at the next station for Paris?" Surprised. I thought so. "Yes,
Monsieur, the next station." By Hell I surprised somebody....
Who are a million, a trillion, a nonillion young men? All are standing. I
am standing. We are wedged in and on and over and under each other.
Sardines. Knew a man once who was arrested for stealing sardines. I,
sardine, look at three sardines, at three million sardines, at a carful
of sardines. How did I get here? Oh yes of course. Briouse. Horrible name
"Briouse." Made a bluff at riding _deuxieme classe_ on a _troisieme
classe_ ticket bought for me by _les deux balayeurs_. Gentleman in the
compartment talked French with me till conductor appeared. "Tickets,
gentlemen?" I extended mine dumbly. He gave me a look. "How? This is
third class!" I looked intelligently ignorant. "_Il ne comprend pas
francais_" says the gentleman. "Ah!" says the conductor, "tease ease
eye-ee thoorde claz tea-keat. You air een tea say-coend claz. You weel go
ean-too tea thoorde claz weal you yes pleace at once?" So I got stung
after all. Third is more amusing certainly, though god-damn hot with
these sardines, including myself of course. O yes of course. _Poilus en
permission._ Very old some. Others mere kids. Once saw a _planton_ who
never saw a razor. Yet he was _reforme. C'est la guerre._ Several of us
get off and stretch at a little tank-town-station. Engine thumping up
front somewhere in the darkness. Wait. They get their _bidons_ filled.
Wish I had a _bidon_, a _dis-donc bidon n'est-ce pas. Faut pas t'en
faire_, who sang or said that?
I am almost asleep. Or myself. What's the matter here? Sardines writhing
about, cut it out, no room for that sort of thing. Jolt.
Morning. Morning in Paris. I found my bed full of fleas this morning, and
I couldn't catch the fleas, though I tried hard because I was ashamed
that anyone should find fleas in my bed which is at the Hotel des Saints
Peres whither I went in a fiacre and the driver didn't know where it was.
Wonderful. This is the American embassy. I must look funny in my
_pelisse_. Thank God for the breakfast I ate somewhere ... good-looking
girl, Parisienne, at the switch-board upstairs. "Go right in, sir." A-I
English by God. So this is the person to whom Edward E. Cummings is
immediately to report.
"Is this Mr. Cummings?"
"Yes." Rather a young man, very young in fact. Jove I must look queer.
"Sit down! We've been looking all over creation for you."
"Have some cigarettes?"
By God he gives me a sac of Bull. Extravagant they are at the American
Embassy. Can I roll one? I can. I do.
Conversation. Pleased to see me. Thought I was lost for good. Tried every
means to locate me. Just discovered where I was. What was it like? No,
really? You don't mean it! Well I'll be damned! Look here; this man B.,
what sort of a fellow is he? Well I'm interested to hear you say that.
Look at this correspondence. It seemed to me that a fellow who could
write like that wasn't dangerous. Must be a little queer. Tell me, isn't
he a trifle foolish? That's what I thought. Now I'd advise you to leave
France as soon as you can. They're picking up ambulance men left and
right, men who've got no business to be in Paris. Do you want to leave by
the next boat? I'd advise it. Good. Got money? If you haven't we'll pay
your fare. Or half of it. Plenty, eh? Norton-Harjes, I see. Mind going
second class? Good. Not much difference on this line. Now you can take
these papers and go to.... No time to lose, as she sails to-morrow.
That's it. Grab a taxi, and hustle. When you've got those signatures
bring them to me and I'll fix you all up. Get your ticket first, here's a
letter to the manager of the Compagnie Generale. Then go through the
police department. You can do it if you hurry. See you later. Make it
quick, eh? Good-bye!
The streets. _Les rues de Paris._ I walked past Notre Dame. I bought
tobacco. Jews are peddling things with American trade-marks on them,
because in a day or two it's Christmas I suppose. Jesus it is cold. Dirty
snow. Huddling people. _La guerre._ Always _la guerre_. And chill. Goes
through these big mittens. To-morrow I shall be on the ocean. Pretty neat
the way that passport was put through. Rode all day in a taxi, two
cylinders, running on one. Everywhere waiting lines. I stepped to the
head and was attended to by the officials of the great and good French
Government. Gad that's a good one. A good one on _le gouvernement
francais_. Pretty good. _Les rues sont tristes._ Perhaps there's no
Christmas, perhaps the French Government has forbidden Christmas. Clerk
at Norton-Harjes seemed astonished to see me. O God it is cold in Paris.
Everyone looks hard under lamplight, because it's winter I suppose.
Everyone hurried. Everyone hard. Everyone cold. Everyone huddling.
Everyone alive; alive: alive.
Shall I give this man five francs for dressing my hand? He said "anything
you like, monsieur." Ship's doctor's probably well-paid. Probably not.
Better hurry before I put my lunch. Awe-inspiring stink, because it's in
the bow. Little member of the crew immersing his guess-what in a can of
some liquid or other, groaning from time to time, staggers when the boat
tilts. "_Merci bien, Monsieur!_" That was the proper thing. Now for
the--never can reach it--here's the _premiere classe_ one--any port in a
storm.... Feel better now. Narrowly missed American officer but just
managed to make it. Was it yesterday or day before saw the Vaterland, I
mean the what deuce is it--the biggest afloat in the world boat. Damned
rough. Snow falling. Almost slid through the railing that time. Snow. The
snow is falling into the sea; which quietly receives it: into which it
utterly and peacefully disappears. Man with a college degree returning
from Spain, not disagreeable sort, talks Spanish with that fat man who's
an Argentinian.--Tinian?--Tinish, perhaps. All the same. In other words
Tin. Nobody at the table knows I speak English or am American. Hell,
that's a good one on nobody. That's a pretty fat kind of a joke on
nobody. Think I'm French. Talk mostly with those three or four Frenchmen
going on permission to somewhere via New York. One has an accordion. Like
second class. Wait till you see the _gratte-ciels_, I tell 'em. They say
"_Oui?_" and don't believe. I'll show them. America. The land of the flea
and the home of the dag'--short for dago of course. My spirits are
constantly improving. Funny Christmas, second day out. Wonder if we'll
dock New Year's Day. My God what a list to starboard. They say a waiter
broke his arm when it happened, ballast shifted. Don't believe it.
Something wrong. I know I nearly fell downstairs....
My God what an ugly island. Hope we don't stay here long. All the
red-bloods first-class much excited about land. Damned ugly, I think.
The tall, impossibly tall, incomparably tall, city shoulderingly upward
into hard sunlight leaned a little through the octaves of its parallel
edges, leaningly strode upward into firm hard snowy sunlight; the noises
of America nearingly throbbed with smokes and hurrying dots which are men
and which are women and which are things new and curious and hard and
strange and vibrant and immense, lifting with a great ondulous stride
firmly into immortal sunlight....