Part 8 out of 8
of debris and human bodies. A quick concentration of rifle fire
depressed it, and the swell came out again toward the left.
Claude's appearance on the parapet had attracted no attention
from the enemy at first, but now the bullets began popping about
him; two rattled on his tin hat, one caught him in the shoulder.
The blood dripped down his coat, but he felt no weakness. He felt
only one thing; that he commanded wonderful men. When David came
up with the supports he might find them dead, but he would find
them all there. They were there to stay until they were carried
out to be buried. They were mortal, but they were unconquerable.
The Colonel's twenty minutes must be almost up, he thought. He
couldn't take his eyes from the front line long enough to look at
his wrist watch . . . . The men behind him saw Claude sway as if
he had lost his balance and were trying to recover it. Then he
plunged, face down, outside the parapet. Hicks caught his foot
and pulled him back. At the same moment the Missourians ran
yelling up the communication. They threw their machine guns up on
the sand bags and went into action without an unnecessary motion.
Hicks and Bert Fuller and Oscar carried Claude forward toward the
Snout, out of the way of the supports that were pouring in. He
was not bleeding very much. He smiled at them as if he were going
to speak, but there was a weak blankness in his eyes. Bert tore
his shirt open; three clean bullet holes. By the time they looked
at him again, the smile had gone . . . the look that was Claude
had faded. Hicks wiped the sweat and smoke from his officer's
face. "Thank God I never told him," he said. "Thank God for
Bert and Oscar knew what Hicks meant. Gerhardt had been blown to
pieces at his side when they dashed back through the enemy
barrage to find the Missourians. They were running together
across the open, not able to see much for smoke. They bumped into
a section of wire entanglement, left above an old trench. David
cut round to the right, waving Hicks to follow him. The two were
not ten yards apart when the shell struck. Then Sergeant Hicks
ran on alone.
The sun is sinking low, a transport is steaming slowly up the
narrows with the tide. The decks are covered with brown men. They
cluster over the superstructure like bees in swarming time. Their
attitudes are relaxed and lounging. Some look thoughtful, some
well contented, some are melancholy, and many are indifferent, as
they watch the shore approaching. They are not the same men who
Sergeant Hicks was standing in the stern, smoking, reflecting,
watching the twinkle of the red sunset upon the cloudy water. It
is more than a year since he sailed for France. The world has
changed in that time, and so has he.
Bert Fuller elbowed his way up to the Sergeant. "The doctor says
Colonel Maxey is dying, He won't live to get off the boat, much
less to ride in the parade in New York tomorrow."
Hicks shrugged, as if Maxey's pneumonia were no affair of his.
"Well, we should worry! We've left better officers than him over
"I'm not saying we haven't. But it seems too bad, when he's so
strong for fuss and feathers. He's been sending cables about that
parade for weeks."
"Huh!" Hicks elevated his eyebrows and glanced sidewise in
disdain. Presently he sputtered, squinting down at the glittering
water, "Colonel Maxey, anyhow! Colonel for what Claude and
Gerhardt did, I guess!". Hicks and Bert Fuller have been helping
to keep the noble fortress of Ehrenbreitstein. They have always
hung together and are usually quarrelling and grumbling at each
other when they are off duty. Still, they hang together. They are
the last of their group. Nifty Jones and Oscar, God only knows
why, have gone on to the Black Sea.
During the year they were in the Rhine valley, Bert and Hicks
were separated only once, and that was when Hicks got a two
weeks' leave and, by dint of persevering and fatiguing travel,
went to Venice. He had no proper passport, and the consuls and
officials to whom he had appealed in his difficulties begged him
to content himself with something nearer. But he said he was
going to Venice because he had always heard about it. Bert Fuller
was glad to welcome him back to Coblentz, and gave a "wine party"
to celebrate his return. They expect to keep an eye on each
other. Though Bert lives on the Platte and Hicks on the Big Blue,
the automobile roads between those two rivers are excellent.
Bert is the same sweet-tempered boy he was when he left his
mother's kitchen; his gravest troubles have been frequent
betrothals. But Hicks' round, chubby face has taken on a slightly
cynical expression,--a look quite out of place there. The chances
of war have hurt his feelings . . . not that he ever wanted
anything for himself. The way in which glittering honours bump
down upon the wrong heads in the army, and palms and crosses
blossom on the wrong breasts, has, as he says, thrown his compass
off a few points.
What Hicks had wanted most in this world was to run a garage and
repair shop with his old chum, Dell Able. Beaufort ended all
that. He means to conduct a sort of memorial shop, anyhow, with
"Hicks and Able" over the door. He wants to roll up his sleeves
and look at the logical and beautiful inwards of automobiles for
the rest of his life.
As the transport enters the North River, sirens and steam
whistles all along the water front begin to blow their shrill
salute to the returning soldiers. The men square their shoulders
and smile knowingly at one another; some of them look a little
bored. Hicks slowly lights a cigarette and regards the end of it
with an expression which will puzzle his friends when he gets
By the banks of Lovely Creek, where it began, Claude Wheeler's
story still goes on. To the two old women who work together in
the farmhouse, the thought of him is always there, beyond
everything else, at the farthest edge of consciousness, like the
evening sun on the horizon.
Mrs. Wheeler got the word of his death one afternoon in the
sitting-room, the room in which he had bade her good-bye. She was
reading when the telephone rang.
"Is this the Wheeler farm? This is the telegraph office at
Frankfort. We have a message from the War Department,--" the
voice hesitated. "Isn't Mr. Wheeler there?"
"No, but you can read the message to me."
Mrs. Wheeler said, "Thank you," and hung up the receiver. She
felt her way softly to her chair. She had an hour alone, when
there was nothing but him in the room,--but him and the map
there, which was the end of his road. Somewhere among those
perplexing names, he had found his place.
Claude's letters kept coming for weeks afterward; then came the
letters from his comrades and his Colonel to tell her all.
In the dark months that followed, when human nature looked to her
uglier than it had ever done before, those letters were Mrs.
Wheeler's comfort. As she read the newspapers, she used to think
about the passage of the Red Sea, in the Bible; it seemed as if
the flood of meanness and greed had been held back just long
enough for the boys to go over, and then swept down and engulfed
everything that was left at home. When she can see nothing that
has come of it all but evil, she reads Claude's letters over
again and reassures herself; for him the call was clear, the
cause was glorious. Never a doubt stained his bright faith. She
divines so much that he did not write. She knows what to read
into those short flashes of enthusiasm; how fully he must have
found his life before he could let himself go so far--he, who was
so afraid of being fooled! He died believing his own country
better than it is, and France better than any country can ever
be. And those were beautiful beliefs to die with. Perhaps it was
as well to see that vision, and then to see no more. She would
have dreaded the awakening,--she sometimes even doubts whether he
could have borne at all that last, desolating disappointment. One
by one the heroes of that war, the men of dazzling soldiership,
leave prematurely the world they have come back to. Airmen whose
deeds were tales of wonder, officers whose names made the blood
of youth beat faster, survivors of incredible dangers,--one by
one they quietly die by their own hand. Some do it in obscure
lodging houses, some in their office, where they seemed to be
carrying on their business like other men. Some slip over a
vessel's side and disappear into the sea. When Claude's mother
hears of these things, she shudders and presses her hands tight
over her breast, as if she had him there. She feels as if God had
saved him from some horrible suffering, some horrible end. For as
she reads, she thinks those slayers of themselves were all so
like him; they were the ones who had hoped extravagantly,--who in
order to do what they did had to hope extravagantly, and to
believe passionately. And they found they had hoped and believed
too much. But one she knew, who could ill bear disillusion . . .
Mahailey, when they are alone, sometimes addresses Mrs. Wheeler
as "Mudder" ; "Now, Mudder, you go upstairs an' lay down an' rest
yourself." Mrs. Wheeler knows that then she is thinking of
Claude, is speaking for Claude. As they are working at the table
or bending over the oven, something reminds them of him, and they
think of him together, like one person: Mahailey will pat her
back and say, "Never you mind, Mudder; you'll see your boy up
yonder." Mrs. Wheeler always feels that God is near,--but
Mahailey is not troubled by any knowledge of interstellar spaces,
and for her He is nearer still,--directly overhead, not so very
far above the kitchen stove.