My adventures as a fiddler militant began with the extremely musical sound made by a postal card as it came clicking through the letter-slot. Filled with gloomy forebodings by what the examiner for the first Plattsburg Reserve Officers’ Training Camp had told me a few days before, I had been watching that slot, with a ferret’s eye and the mind of a prisoner at the bar when the jury is filing in.
‘You’re all right,’the examiner had said, ‘except your age. Of course, you know, your thirty-seven years are against you.’
But now through the slot this magic postal card, with its rich roseate hue, burst into the middle of Blue Monday. The resulting shade was a royal purple of triumph. It directed me to report as No. 2056 to the commanding officer at Plattsburg the day after to-morrow. Whoop-la! what a relief!
Then I turned the radiant thing over to the address side, half expecting to see myself already called by the honorable title of ‘Candidate.’ Name of a name! It was addressed to another man!
I descended into hell, and there and then decided to attend the Williams College R.O.T.C. and prepare for a more successful assault on the portals of the second Plattsburg. My plan of campaign was to execute a frontal attack in person, while dispatching my publisher on an expedition against the Washington flank, heavily armed with propaganda to the effect that the present chief need of the infantry was veteran writers thirty-seven years of age.
I will flit in an airy manner over my musical activities at Williamstown. You remember the one good thing that Philip Gilbert Hamerton said? He remarked that old writers like Sir Thomas Malory sometimes condensed a whole psychological novel into the single phrase: ‘When twenty years had come and gone.’ In like manner my adventures as a fiddler militant at Williamstown might be summarized in a still more compact formula, which was to recur so often in the reports of my scout officers in the trenches: ‘N.T.R.’
Nothing to report. That is to say, unless we except those Sunday afternoon groups around a certain hospitable piano, when dear old enthusiastic Walthers appeared, fiddle in hand and with double bars on his shoulders, and we played trios, while, at every other movement, I was spelled oil by the nephew who, a few weeks hence, was to hitch his ambulance to a star, and his Ford ’cello to the ceiling of his ambulance, and ‘ fliv ’ about France for two years as an up-to-date good Samaritan, pouring in oil and gas, and fiddling his blesses back to life and the front-line trenches.
Stay! There was one bona-fide musical adventure, when my half-brother, the real honest-to-goodness pianist;, came to spend a week-end with me. That is, everyone swore that he had rounded into a real pianist. Personally I did n’t know, for I had n’t seen more than twenty-four hours’ worth of him since the early days when his musical performances, though vigorous, were exclusively vocal. I did n’t know, for I never take such statements at secondhand any more. I ’ve been disillusioned too often: I’ve got to be shown.
Well, here was the kid brother, and here was my own Caspar, the strangest, funniest, oldest, nicest ’cello that the Italian Renaissance ever handed down for the ultimate delectation of that new world which had been discovered only about a half-century before its advent. And here was a genial professor, with a succulent Steinway grand set in the studio of his wife, whose paintings gladdened the eye whenever the eye had a measure’s rest or so. What was it Browning once wailed about never the time and the place and the pianist all together? We fooled him that day.
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Here was the young upstart of a brother, whom I had mislaid all his life long, sitting down to Brahms sonatas for piano and Gaspar, and reading them at sight with the ease and abandon to the sound and sense with which I myself could read Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics: yes, and with his delicious touch achieving that wellnigh mythical feat — for a pianist — of playing softly when he encountered the mystic hieroglyph pp. Now most manipulators of the ivories are so innocent of this accomplishment that they should not be called pianists at all. They should be called fortisis. But this kid brother act ually played the hyphenated piano-forte, holding a just balance on either side of the hyphen.
I was filled with a sense of the joy of life, and its absurdity. Here was I, after having hunted all over creation for a large part of thirty-seven years for the ideal chamber-music pianist, and having found only two or three (who would never stay put), stumbling inadvertently upon one in the bosom of the family. And here were we, not proposing to stay put, either, but — while ravished by the beauties of Brahms — both setting forth on diverging paths to slay as many of the compatriots of Brahms as possible.
One final vignette. The dormitories had been turned into barracks, and in the next room lived banjos, banjourines, mandolins, mandolas, guitars, guitarettes, ukeleles, and, in a musical sense, every creeping thing. During the day, we were given five minutes’ rest between drill periods. During the night, we had an hour between lectures and taps. After meals, we had at least a quarter of an hour for undiluted repose. These periods were always employed, to the uttermost second, by the comrades next door, in laying offerings upon the altar of the Muse Polyragthymnia. The process sounded at times as if the altar were constructed of sheetiron, and the gifts took the form of a varied sheaf of kitchen utensils, let fall on it from a considerable height.
One Sunday evening Gaspar and I could no longer resist the siren lures of Music—not Heavenly Maid, but ready made. We entered next door, and close on our heels there thronged in performers upon the flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, kazoo, snare-drum, and all kinds of music. The entire mantelshelf was replete with the entire banjo family, two deep. The trombonist, sat ent hroned upon the Encyclopœdia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, to the apparent disadvantage of the latter.
We were just at the height of a spirited rendition of ‘They wear ’em higher in Hawaii,’ whose sonority must have immobilized the clock on the distant tower, and made the wretched factory children of North Adams stir uneasily in their troubled sleep, when I saw a face peering in over the heads of all Williamstown, which were inserted raptly into the large window. The face was ghastly white. The eyeballs were well-nigh popping from their sockets. The whole expression was one of terrified stupefaction, which was transformed into malevolent comprehension when it caught sight of my own unworthy features.
The bow dropped from my nerveless grasp. With a low moan of shame, not unmingled with compassion, I recognized in that face the distorted features of one of the most celebrated organists of New York City. As a music critic. I had once attacked him for not being sufficiently high-brow.
We were still a long way from France — in fact, the exact distance between Plattsburg and Brest; and we were lined up in company front, when an orderly arrived with a note for our captain. He read it and exclaimed, —
‘Candidate Schauffler, report at once to the Post Commandant.’
Now you may dispatch a chap on a tight-rope reconnaissance from the top of the Metropolitan Tower to the top of the Flatiron Building, or cause him to patrol Fift h Avenue from Twenty-third to Forty-Second Street clad in his birthday clothes, and he will feel no more uncomfortably conspicuous than a three-days-old candidate, not, yet reconciled to the eccentricities of canvas leggins, who should be haled without warning out of company front to visit the commandant on business unspecified.
The business was as yet unspecified, but, in the marrow of my bones I felt, what was up. The commandant had discovered, through the detective service of his Intelligence Section, the damning fact, that I was a poet; had added this up to my thirty-seven years like two and two, and had decided that such a combination could never make a doughboy. I was going to be kicked out and disgraced. Shedding my pack and Springfield, I advanced toward headquarters with inelastic tread.
The portal yawned. I girded myself together, stepped inside, schooled my features to look somewhat like those of the Admirable Crichton in the first act, where he is a butler, and pulled off a well-nigh perfect textbook salute. The commandant pulled off a far less perfect one, smiled pleasantly, rose to his feet, and, to my utter astonishment, shook hands in a genial manner and offered me a chair. This, thought I in bewilderment, is not what any of the books have led me to expect. It is administering the fatal pill dissolved in a large, sweet Martini.
‘So you’re a fiddler militant,’ observed Colonel Wolf. ‘I know all about you. I’ve read your stuff. Pleased to meet you. Now, won’t you play that big fiddle of yours for the men some night, in our open-air stadium? And I want you to serve on the entertainment committee.’
He pressed a. bell and introduced me to his adjutant. I explained to t he adjutant that I’d he glad to play if I could brush aside certain slight difficulties which were: —
1. I was out of practice, owing to the exigencies of squads right and rightshoulder arms.
2. I had no music.
3. I had no accompanist.
4. I had no ‘cello.
Apart from this, I was quite ready.
The adjutant expressed his confidence that I would easily make as nought; these trifling handicaps. ‘You know,’ said he, ‘America expects each man to do the impossible.’ Then he introduced me to my fellow members of the Entertainment Committee: Candidate Bud Fisher, Candidate Robert Warwick, and others equally good and great.
It next fell to my lot to direct the activities of these gent lemen in decorating the stadium stage with evergreen branches, — to secure which we reverted to type and became arboreal, — and with ferns, to secure which we groveled in the thick undergrowth of deep swamps. To this day I recall with pleasure t he appearance of a renowned but. sedentary sporting editor as he swung from branch to branch, and that of a celebrated but somewhat sybaritic tenor as he emerged from that swamp, having bitten the muck and mingled it with his golden vocal cords.
To complicate matters, we had all just had a ‘shot in the arm’ that, noon, which was taking with especial virulence. It was a sorry-looking crew of celebrities who, under my temporary control, stood about, viewing their handiwork as exterior decorators and working their poor arms like pumphandles in a misguided and vain attempt to ward off stiffness. I wish I could introduce a snapshot of them at this point.
It now occurred to me that I must play in public that evening; so I obtained an extension of respite from ‘Squads right,’hurried into the metropolis, and persuaded the leading, and in fact the only, ’cellist to lend me the leading, and in fact, the only, ’cello of Plattsburg.
I still remember with mingled emotions that night’s performance. Aside from the fact that an icy wind blew full upon the ill-starred dog-house that I clutched between my knees, thus rapidly altering the pitch of the strings while I played; and that, my arm was so stiff from the shot, and the subsequent treeclimbing and wallowing that I could scarce lift hand to string; and that a laboring freight locomotive came puffing and groaning along on the tracks nearby and quite drowned out the latter half of the tune, the performance was fairly successful in showing that as an amateur fiddler I was an excellent soldier. For no performance could have failed entirely, with that radio-active accompanist pushing on the reins at the piano behind my back — he who had composed ‘The Last Long Mile’ only the day before, and given it its first performance just before my solo.
Will any Plattsburg man ever forget the sings we had while waiting for those sempiternal lectures? One dramatic moment; comes back vividly to mind, when the entire body of candidates, who had never before sung together anything more devotional in character than ‘The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-aling,’ suddenly burst forth by common telepathic consent into a superb, nobly moving rendition of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful.’
An eccentric old party, dear to the hearts of all R.O.T.C. men, used to visit us once in a while and teach us to improve our tones of military command by vibrating our ‘head spaces,’— presumably the places where the brain ought to be but was n’t, — and by holding our noses and blowing through our ears, and other devices generally supposed to be acquired only through interminable and expensive courses of lessons with singing teachers whose names end in ini and elli. This gentleman’s name, however, ended as soon as it began. He was prosaically but fittingly known as Mr. Noyes. It was the second most fitting name I have ever known. The first belonged to a lady who weighed five hundred pounds and rejoiced in the name of Madame Hellbig. Mr. Noyes’s name was, as the grammarians would say, highly onomat.opoetic, if one might judge from the volume of tone he produced from us three thousand candidates.
His methods were as short as his name. Reasoning from the swiftness with which he taught the gang ‘Keep Your Head Down,’and ‘K-k-k-Katie’ in about ten minutes apiece, I believe that Mr. Noyes could have taught us César Franck’s monumental oratorio, ‘The Beatitudes,’ in three sittings — provided, of course, that instead of allowing the pious words of the original to reveal that this was ‘high-brow music’ the damning fact had been camouflaged by translating the text into the popular idiom of the doughboy.
Thus, for example, instead of the part about they that mourn being comforted, the candidates would have gulped down Franck’s soothing strains to such words as, —
It never was worth while.’
Such low-browness was, of course, most deplorable, but I did not raise my voice in denunciation, knowing full well the truth of that portion of Scripture which declares: ‘A prophet is a los in his own company.’
The months at Plattsburg resolved themselves into a second lieutenant’s commission in the infantry. My instructors informed me rather apologetically that they would have given me a higher rank if I had n’t been a fiddler and a poet; the inference being that, to have a mixed command consisting of young-lady muses and young-gentleman doughboys would not be considered the thing in the best, military circles. It would be an affront to the conventions of the most conventional set in the world.
As for me, I was delighted to get any commission at all. For I had long ago resolved that, if I received in lieu of a commission that bitter and acrid fruit, the raspberry, I would enlist. And I did not begrudge the handicap of the muses. For I would far rather be a gold-barred fiddler militant in crowded barracks than dwell in the tents of Colonel X at Camp -. Colonel X was our most celebrated low-brow. He it was who scolded his bugle-corps for the monotony of their four-noted music. ‘It’s all too much on the same key,’ he said to the leader. ‘ Liven things up with some runs and trills and flourishes. Now for to-morrow I want you to play, “Joan of Arc.’”
It was no other than Colonel X who once broke up a rehearsal of his regimental band by waving his arms in an impressive manner and roaring, ‘Here, what’re you trying to do?’
LEADER. We are rehearsing ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever,’ sir.
COLONEL X (leveling a minatory finger at the alto, tenor, and bass trombones). I want to see those instruments dress up. Want, to see those trombone-slides all go in and out together in a military manner!
On another occasion this colonel stopped the same unfortunate band with a rough, ‘Here, here, what’s all this foolishness?”
LEADER (patiently). What, sir?
COLONEL X (withering the solo trumpeter with a glare). Why is n’t that man working?
LEADER. He has four measures’ rest before his solo, sir.
COLONEL X. Now then, I want you to understand that I won’t stand for any more of this slacking. Want you to get music that will keep every man busy all the time. Make ’em all work! Make ’em all work!
By good luck I was not assigned to this colonel’s outfit, but to the finest regiment in the 79th Division. The 313th Infantry, besides containing the best fighting men in camp, had the highest quota of gentlemen and sportsmen among its officers, and (he best band. (This is invariably the way every soldier talks about his own outfit.) Our band was directed by Louie Fisher, then an enlisted man, later a captain and the leader of Pershing’s band. As Regimental Intelligence Officer, I commanded the first platoon of Headquarters Company, which included among a vast and heterogeneous throng Louie Fisher and his musicians.
One reason why our music was so good was that Fisher had an eagle eye peeled all the time for promising material. One day he came to me in high excitement and said, —
‘I’ve made a wonderful find!’
‘In a rifle company. I know him. He’s the greatest pianist within a hundred miles. Came to camp two weeks ago, a raw recruit. They’ve had him out there on the parade ground dragging a rifle around till he’s half dead. I’ve asked for him for the band, and got him, by Jove!’
‘But you can’t use a pianist in the band.’
‘No, but we can set him learning some other instrument. He’s an allaround musician. What would you advise? ’
I advised the oboe. The oboe was as rare as the dodo. Now that we had a good musician at our mercy, here was a chance to supply a long-felt want. So our pianist was given an oboe, and soon was making day hideous wit hin a radius of one hundred yards.
That evening Fisher brought him over to the Y.M.C.A. hut to show me what he could do. I can never get out of my mind how incongruously noble and beautiful was his rendering of Chopin’s B minor Sonata and the A minor Prelude and Fugue of Bach, as it competed with the rip-roaring atmosphere of that hut. It was as if, out yonder on the bayonet course, someone had hung up the Hermes of Praxiteles by the neck in one of the gallows, instead of the usual straw-stuffed dummies of Boches, for the yelling doughboys to jab with their bayonets as they rushed past. And, looking somewhat like a Hermes thus treated, our pianist rose up after he had finished the Bach selection, amid the ribald though innocent whoops of his fellow doughboys, and declared that he could play no more.
Remembering how the muse had been penalized at Plattsburg, I had thus far kept from Camp - the fact that I was a fiddler militant. But now, in the enthusiasm of finding this great virtuoso in spiral puttees, the truth somehow leaked out. It did n’t matter so much, however, because I had already exchanged my gold bars for silver, and because we had no such low-brow colonel as the one who insisted that the trombone slides must all go in and out together.
In fact, our colonel sent for me and said that he liked music a lot, and would n’t I take my ’cello along over to France, so that, in the regiment’s moments of relaxation, I might play to them with the new pianist.
I said I would be glad to play for them if it would n’t be held against me and put down as a large black blot on my efficiency record; but that my ’cello was nearly as old as Columbus, and that such a fragile and temperamental rarity would stand just about as much chance in the A.E.F. as a butterfly in a hamburg-steak machine.
‘All right,’ said the colonel; ‘then we’ll buy you a good, strong, tough, armor-plated ’cello out of the regimental fund. We’ve got to have that music.’
So next day Fisher and I went into Baltimore and bought the regiment a ’cello, quartermaster-proof, yet sweet and mellow withal. Very fittingly, we were helped by a gentleman who was a good amateur musician on the flute, and had been a close friend of that flute-playing hero of my boyhood, the noble poet and musician militant, Sidney Lanier.
I saw this patriotic amateur draw the violin dealer aside and whisper to him in an authoritative manner; and I have always attributed to this whispered conversation the fact that our available three hundred dollars bought a ’cello that seemed to me worth more like five hundred, together with a good bow, an almost bomb-proof case, and enough strings, glue, clamps, sound-post setters, and extra bridges and tail-piece gut, to guard against most eventualities in the S.O.S., except those which the insurance policies so elegantly denominate ‘foreign enemies and civil commotions. ’
Alas for the best-laid plans of fiddlers militant! The bomb-proof ’cello duly arrived at Camp-along with our embarkation orders. There was no time to play it to the regiment — only to nail it up in its immense coffin, along with half of my musical library. With the rest of the heavy freight, it set forth for France a few days ahead of us.
And I feel I’m growing gradually pale;
For even at this day,
Though its sting has passed away.
When I venture to remember it, I quail.
The following day I was informed by the colonel that we had lost our great pianist. Colonel X (the one who had admonished his band leader to ‘Make ’em all work!’) had for some reason become even more acutely than ever dissatisfied with that functionary, and, hearing of our pianist, wished to give him the position. He promised to make him a commissioned officer at once, if the 313th would let him go. And our colonel, not wishing to stand in the young musician’s upward way, reluctantly consented.
A few days later, however, in marching past Colonel X’s barracks, en route to the Leviathan, I noticed our pianist, still clad in the blue jeans of the enlisted man, watching us wistfully from the side of the road. Could it be, thought I, that a colonel who could insist on the bugles, with their four notes, playing ‘Joan of Arc,’ might be so far swayed by his vague general distrust of music, that he could bring himself to grab a great pianist on the pretext of commissioning him, and then withhold the commission in order to stymie the divine art? The event proved that it could be. Our pianist retained to the end the blue jeans of the enlisted man.
But poetic justic overtook the wicked Colonel X. Let me anticipate and show him in action. In a crisis of the MeuseArgonne offensive a piece of shrapnel came and severely wounded him in the canteen. Feeling his life-blood chilling in his veins and gushing rapidly down his limb, he raised a frantic howl of ‘Tourniquet! tourniquet!’ First aid appeared and examined the colonel, and pointed out to him that the skin had not even been broken by the projectile. ‘Makes no difference!’ cried Colonel X. ‘Get to work here. I won’t have any of this slacking. Tourniquet! tourniquet!’
The tourniquet was applied by the furtively grinning medical staff. It was applied with considerable force, however; and after a time, when all the water had been shed (for he had but one canteen to give for his country), the sufferer decided to take his chances without the aid of science. Not long after, Colonel X was relieved from duty on the field of honor, for incompetence. Long may he rave!
To return to the regimental ’cello. It was raped from me more utterly than my pianist. This time, however, I suspect, not Colonel X, but the Boche. It was seen to leave these shores. So far as can be learned, it never landed in France. There is a chance, of course, that it may have been diverted to some other route. At this very moment it may be the soul of the musical life of the bazaars of Bagdad, or be brightening the long winter nights of Archangel. But my personal belie! is that it was submarined.
But, even if it had been submarined, it would have floated, unless weighed down too much by all that heavy sonata music. I never look out of my Larchmont window across Long Island Sound without scanning the offing for a ’cello cast upon the waters. And I always retain the hope that glue, which was a part of its trousseau, is insoluble in brine.
Too bad, even for purely military reasons, that it should have been submarined ! In open warfare, for example, a ’cello would be invaluable. I can imagine few more effective weapons. Getting out the long, sharp end-pin, fixing it in place like a bayonet, and then bearing down resolutely upon the foe, you would transfix with astonishment every Hun that, beheld you, until you had transfixed him with the endpin.
Alas for all these vain imaginings! In my inmost heart I fear that the regimental ’cello is no more. But my chief regret is that it had to perish so fruitlessly. Now, if that ’cello had only been submarined along with Colonel X, and had gone down under him irrevocably while he was using it for a raft and screaming to his staff for a life-preserver, I should be resigned to the sacrifice. It would have perished in a worthy cause.