DURING my whole service in France up to the day when I rose from the cot in Base Hospital 14 and began to hobble, I had only one fiddling adventure.
My regiment spent some time in the town of Champlitte, training for the front lines. So far as we were aware, Champlitte possessed but one bathtub. You dropped into the bathing establishment every time you passed that way, and once during the course of several weeks you probably were fortunate enough to find the tub hospitably vacant.
Now, I had known about cleanliness being next to godliness. France showed me that it was but one remove from the divine art of fiddling. One day I stopped in to make the usual tender inquiries after the bathtub’s condition. I was informed that it was doing better than was to be expected under the circumstances, and that, if I would honor a chair in the next room for a little bit with my distinguished presence, facilities for cleanliness would soon be at my disposal.
I was ushered into the family parlor. The first thing that I saw on entering was a ’cello. It was suffering from anæmia, recessive gums, and that form of acute St. Vitus’s dance in the lumbar regions known as Pernicious Wolf Tone; but it was still a ’cello. Of course I picked it up and began to play.
In rushed madame, clasping her hands as if in ecstasy. In waddled grand’mère, not in any ecstasy, but flying signals of extreme content. In tornadoed a small boy and began to cavort about my chair, like a young puppy, wild with jubilation on being released from long captivity and offered a juicy bone.
I inquired if the bath were ready.
‘Ah, monsieur le lieutenant, but first we entreat you to play some more! You cannot know how we have starved for our dear music during these sad years when no one has had the heart to play. But now it is different. Thanks to messieurs les Américains we are about to achieve the victory.’
I asked what they wanted to hear, and they wanted the Meditation from Thaïs, copious extracts from Faust, Massenet’s Élégie, the Berceuse from Jocelyn, and the Sextette from Lucia. These I dutifully rendered, while my audience caressed the music with their eyes. Madame slipped out for a moment and returned with a bottle of her choicest wine. Grand’mère cut me a bunch of delicious grapes from the arbor outside the door.
I was not allowed to bathe until I had given young Antoine, the ’cello’s owner, some pointers on how to manipulate his property. While I splashed, the earnest garçon kept running in with eager inquiries about how to bow an arpeggio, how to make the C-string stay at C without sliding down to zero every few moments, and how to gain the rare altitude of the fourth position without slipping into a crevasse.
When all was said and done and bathed, I had much ado to make madame accept compensation for the bath. Regarding the wine and the grapes, she was adamant. Had I not brightened their lives and given them all a foretaste of the peace-time coming? Any moment I wanted to play that ’cello to my friends, Antoine should carry it for me to whatever point I might designate. For it was not meet and right that an officer should bemean his honored uniform by carrying so bulky and plebeian a parcel.
Now it happened that I did want to fiddle elsewhere: for I had found a pianist in almost as singular a fashion as that in which I had found a ’cello. I had found the ’cello on the way to a bath. And I had found the pianist on the way to a dentist.
It all began with the texture and consistency of the A.E.F. bread. This form of the staff of life was durably constructed of ironwood. It was of so firm a substance that only teeth of Bessemer steel fitted with diamond points could have bitten it month in, month out, and remained intact. Mine, being made of merely mortal enamel and a very painful substance they call pulp, rained down fillings like the hail that plagued Egypt, and cried, ‘ Kamerad!' and had to be taken to the hospital.
But when they arrived there, the dentist looked sheepish and confessed that all his tools had been sent to France in the heavy freight, and had probably succumbed to the submarines. Unless he hitched my tooth to a wire and the other end of the wire to a bullet, and pulled the trigger and shot the bullet forth into space, he could n’t help my tooth out. I explained that filling, not extraction, — more pulp rather than less, — was my ideal. But he had n’t a single tool, and could not say when he could get his hands on any.
My little affair was urgent, and I could not let the matter rest there. I started forth to find him some of the murderous instruments of his profession. It soon developed that all the local French tooth-doctors were at the front, and, unlike our own, had all their tools with them.
Hold! One of them had been killed in action. Perhaps the widow possessed his outfit. I hastened to the address and found a delightful lady who owned a large and representative memorial collection of dental forceps (from which I involuntarily recoiled), and a charming niece who produced no such effect upon me.
This young woman, indeed, played the piano remarkably handily. I revealed my own weakness for operating upon the ’cello. We accordingly laid our plans with affectionate minuteness as to what we would make happen if a ’cello could be discovered. But it never was, until the day I finally found the bathtub empty.
The very next evening I summoned Antoine with his poor, suffering old bull-fiddle, and mademoiselle and I gave ourselves and the family a concert. We did n’t have any music anywhere but in our heads. But we had so much there that we played all the evening without once repeating ourselves. At first she played, like ninety-nine pianists out of a hundred, a bit heavily. But she made me feel like the lord of creation when I murmured in her ear, ‘Let it be light,’ and it was light. So a pleasant time was had by all.
Like most of her countrywomen, and like most of the English and other peoples who had been at war long enough to find a full outlet for all their pent-up energies and passions, this lady had no prejudice against German music; so we alternated Debussy with Beethoven and Franck with Bach, to everybody’s satisfaction. And afterwards, when I took Antoine’s ’cello over to the American Officers’ Club and played till midnight, there was the same feeling that art is international, and that to cut off German music is no wiser than cutting off your own nose to spite your face.
It was interesting to notice that this feeling grew much more pronounced in my regiment after we had been under fire. As a rule I found that the frontline fighting man had little or no prejudice against German music. He had translated into action, and worked out of his system, that pent-up spleen which so ate into the vitals of the S.O.S. and of the good folks at home.
His idea was somewhat as follows: ‘Let’s lap up everything good that we can get out of the Boches, and enjoy it to the limit! That’s the least, we can do to get even for the rats and the mud, the forced marches, the hospitals, the cold and the cooties.’ So he consumed a German tune with the same gusto that he showed in sampling the cigars and schnapps he found in the captured dugout. I consider this a healthier state than being poisoned by the ingrowing morbidness of the lines of communication. Virulence against German music appeared to increase in direct proportion to the agitator’s distance from Germany. I remember that it was a telephone girl in the rearest of the rear who based her abhorrence of German music on the original ground that it was bad music. Triumphantly she backed up this contention with the syllogism: —
‘Music is goodness.
‘The German is not good.
‘Therefore the German is not musical.’
Naturally I forebore to invert this extraordinary proposition and come back with: —
‘Music is goodness.
‘ The German is musical.
‘Therefore the German is good,’ — for I did not in the least think so myself. I merely inquired of her in the mildest of tones whether Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms were, then, unmusical. In the engaging manner of so many cornered ladies, she resorted at once to invective. With wrath flashing from her eyes she denounced me as a disgrace to the uniform I wore.
It was clear that my views on the art of music had not made a hit with the telephone girl. I told myself that you can’t please anyone with everything any more than you can please everyone with anything. But this philosophical reflection did little toward cheering me. For then and there I saw that, when I stopped shooting the Boches and being shot at by them, and went home, I would have to choose between disliking Beethoven, and being shot at by a considerable body of noncombatants.
This was a painful dilemma. For, in going over the top, it was Beethoven and other Boches of his sort who kept such nice, encouraging tunes going all the time in my head, that they made the whizz-bangs and the blind pigs and the bombs and bullets sound much less dismaying than they might otherwise have sounded. These good Teutonic musicians released more of my energies toward the great end of making more present-day Germans good, that is, dead. It was a droll thing to catch Brahms in the act of helping me kill Germans; for in my interesting solo position as Assistant Regimental Intelligence Officer during an attack, I found no more helpful aide than the composer of the Triumphlied.
My chief recollection of music in the trenches is of the wedding hymns which the highly uxorious rats of Verrières sang, as they performed Russian ballets on the corrugated iron of my superterranean dug-out, and while using my face as a spring-board for the high dive. So I am not going to say much of anything about fiddlers’ luck at the front, because it was conspicuous by its absence.
Stay! There was one rare specimen of a fiddler, — well, perhaps not exactly a fiddler, — who went into the Meuse-Argonne offensive with us before Montfaucon, sitting on top of his tank with the shells bursting about him at reasonable distances and intervals. All this time he kept twanging a disreputable banjo and singing at the top of a gay and lusty voice — till one of the shells put a sudden and final doublebar to the music.
My beloved Brahms was the best of bunkies and buddies right up to the moment when the Boche sniper in the tree got me through the hip-bone. And he stayed with me during the hours of jolting back on the stretcher, borne by willing but awkward amateurs. And he stayed with me all the time that very elastic Ford ambulance was cavorting back andante con motor, through the shell-holes to the field hospital.
It was one of those high-brow ambulances that have no use for low gear. Low, in fact, was burned out. So every time we struck a shell-hole, Henry Ford gave a last gasp and had eventually (we asked ourselves: ‘Why not now?’) to be propelled by hand to the crest of the next hill. Those hours might have been an unpleasant experience if it had not been for the Brahms sextettes. Henry might shake me until I was all hip, but, in the words of the ancient song, those darling old comrades (the sextettes) were there by my side.
The two days in the field hospital were over; likewise the two days in the evacuation hospital at Souilly. Dead and done were the two days in the filthy French cattle-car, where you lay with another wounded officer six inches above your nose, tended by a picturesque old ruffian named Philippe, who knew but one word of English. At last the stretchers jolted us into a long chilly paradise of clean sheets and real American girls, who gave us baths and cups of cocoa.
We were in luck. All the hospitals were full up. Those who were wounded after that must take their chances of lying on the dry side of a hedge in the cold rain.
The surgeon major came through with his bunch of catalogue cards, the Who’s Who of Ward 4. He paused beside my bed, ran his finger over them, picked one out, read it, then glanced at me with a sharp look.
‘Schauffler,’ I could hear him murmur; ‘born in Austria.’
I could see suspicion dawning in the major’s eyes. Already I foresaw myself marked down as a possible spy and carried out and laid under a hedge to make room for some Captain John Smith, born in Topeka. There was a look of bigoted conviction about that major, which told me how useless it would be to explain that three of my four grandparents had been Plymouth Rock Yankees, and that the fourth, he who had thoughtlessly endowed me with my too Teutonic name, had been an American citizen. When they are not on the trail of spies, the higher army officers do not bother much with listening to such fine-drawn and subtle distinctions as these. I could almost hear this train of logic forming itself in the major’s mind: —
‘His name is German;
‘He was born in Austria;
‘Therefore he must be a spy.’
I braced myself for the conflict, looked at the major, and prepared to speak. But, as I did so, his expression changed. All at once a flash of eager curiosity replaced the look of hostile suspicion.
‘Look here,’ he said, ‘you don’t happen to come, do you, from that family of American missionaries that was born all over creation?’
The major grew excited.
‘Is Captain Charles Schauffler any relative of yours?’
The major’s hand shot out.
‘ Put it there, old man! Charlie’s about the best friend I have in the world. Why, I just operated on two of his boys before coming abroad.’
‘Yes, and now they ’re both serving in France along with three other nephews of mine.’
‘Look here, what relation are you to the R. H. S. who writes about fiddlers in the Atlantic?’
In a subdued voice, for fear of losing caste with my brother officers in the neighboring beds, I explained the nature of my relationship to that slave of the quill.
The major seemed taken aback.
‘Good heavens!’ he cried. ‘And to think that I was just on the point of denouncing you as a spy!’
Again he shook me warmly by the hand and told me that he had all my books in his library.
‘My colleague the medical major must know of this at once,’ exclaimed my new friend. ‘He has often mentioned your stuff to me. He is a faithful Atlantic reader, and you will find him a bang-up musical amateur.’
He hurried away and, in a few moments, brought back a person whom I shall always regard as one of the largest-souled and warmest-hearted of all my friends. The medical major’s first words to me were wholly characteristic of the man: —
‘What can I get you?’
Any soldier who has ever traveled a couple of hundred miles by slow freight between wound and base hospital will know how welcome these words sounded. All honor to the dauntless ambulance drivers and the compassionate hospital orderlies! But how they could steal! By the time I reached the base I had lost everything I possessed except the clothes on my back and my automatic pistol. And every single driver who flivved me, and every single orderly who tended me, had tried his best to steal that Savage. I preserved it for posterity only by lying continuously upon it. Uncomfortable, of course, but the only sure way. If that Savage had possessed any of the properties of an egg, or I of a hen, I should, before reaching Base 14, have hatched out a considerable flock of little savages. My success in keeping the weapon was extraordinary. Nineteen officers in my ward out of twenty had been relieved of their pistols early in the game, and had had their money-belts rifled as soon as they went under ether in the field hospital.
‘What can I get you?’ asked that blessed major.
‘Toothpaste, a toothbrush, and a sweater,’ I replied without an instant’s hesitation.
He nodded, and returned in half an hour, carrying a khaki kit-bag crammed with all these, and such additional luxuries as socks, dental floss, handkerchiefs, cigarettes, a comb, and writing materials. Praised be his name! I consider seriously dedicating my next book to him and the surgeon who did not throw me out in the rain. For good measure I shall put in the 79th Division and the Mars Hospital Centre.
The medical major used to drop in and sit down on my bed for a chat at least twice a day. I found him a very intelligent amateur musician, and our mouths would water as we talked of historic performances we had heard by the Chicago Orchestra, the Flonzaleys, the Olive Meads, Bauer, and Gabrilowitch, and how jolly it would be if we two might play the Franck sonata together — for the major eventually proved to be a very able pianist.
‘Just wait till you can hobble,’he would say. ‘Then I ’ll dig you up some sort of a ’cello, and we ’ll have fun.’
The first thing this good Samaritan did, as soon as I could navigate, was to place his own private room at my disposal during the daytime. This was a godsend. The long hours of solitude with his library of French novels proved to be an even more delicious luxury than the sheets had been on emerging from the cattle-car.
Now, I like my kind passing well. But for a year and a half I had lived continuously day and night in their immediate presence. And such is the tyranny of the musical ear that there had been no possibility of ever indulging in my own thoughts if any of the comrades were singing, whistling, playing the phonograph, or snoring — and they were nearly always doing one or the other. All the chinks, of course, were filled in with profanity of the first order. There is something musical about a good curse if well performed. And the sound of profanity was never still in the A.E.F.
Sometimes, when the audible world has been too much with me, I have thought that the utopian type of universal democracy enjoined by such enthusiasts as Walt Whitman must be rather easier for unmusical folk to attain and maintain. People whose ears are not particularly sensitive have a gross advantage. Sight, smell, taste, and touch can get along in almost any crowd with kindliness and geniality. You can overlook or underlook ugliness of feature, or deliberately close your eyes to it. You can light a cigar or invoke perfume against an evil odor. Unless you fall among cannibals or into the A.E.F., you are rarely obliged to outrage your palate. As for rubbing elbows with the crowd, I for one have seldom rubbed an elbow that did not give me an interesting wireless message, revealing things about the owner’s personality that he perhaps did not himself know.
But as for the chap who whistles between his teeth, or sings out of tune, or twangs a degenerate guitar with wireloose strings in the next bed for twelve hours a day, while expressing in a cracked voice a Freudian wish for ‘a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad,’ it is passing hard for the musician to keep on loving him in the fraternal manner recommended by Leaves of Grass.
This fact used to sadden me until I happened to stumble one day upon the poem where Whitman tried to write in a sophisticated manner about the art of music. There I found him lavishing his praises on ‘Italia’s peerless compositions,’ especially the ‘trombone duo’ in Ernani, and discovered that those third-raters Rossini and Meyerbeer were just about Walt’s top speed in a musical manner of speaking. The discovery made me easier in my mind. Anybody who felt that way would naturally experience no difficulty in pouring out unstinted floods of love upon the man who, for twelve hours a day, audibly yearned for a girl according to Freud. But there was evidently something wrong with the good gray poet’s ears.
Personally, I do not believe that he was very much more musical than a certain one of the nine directors of the late Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was giving a summer concert at the country club while this gentleman was entertaining a party of friends, and they found some difficulty in making themselves heard above the sounds of the symphony. He called the waiter at length, and said, ‘Waiter, go to Mr. Bernthaler, the man who is waving the stick up there, and tell him to play in a minor key so we can hear each other talk.’
I think this gentleman would have fitted admirably into old Walt’s democratic utopia. To be a real hearty Whitmanian you have to have either rather blunt senses, or the power to disregard the superficial and, by an act of divination, pierce below the surface and appreciate the essential truth, goodness, and beauty hidden there. Only, if you are anything of a musician, it is so much easier to see beauty beneath ugliness than to hear it!
Therefore, when the medical major crowned his royal gift of toothpaste et cetera, by lending me his room and his oil-stove, it was passing pleasant to escape suddenly into the possibility of resuming my year-long habit of quiet reflection — to evoke my auto-comrade again, and after shaking him cordially by the hand and slapping him on the back, find out what he had been up to all the time since I entered Plattsburg and gave him the go-by.
Sometimes the major would drop in for a few moments of chat between his tireless rounds, and we would talk real talk. Whenever I began to thank him for his kindness, he would always shut me up in a determined and flattering manner, saying that he was an Atlantic reader and had to get even with me for various pleasant quarters of an hour.
Before long, when I could hobble two hundred yards, the major told me to go and consult the ear doctor in the neighboring hospital.
‘But,’ I objected, ‘there’s nothing wrong with my ears.’
The major over-rode me.
‘Yes, there is! As your superior officer, I command you to see Lieutenant F—, and tell him you play the ’cello. He ’ll give you something that will help you.’
So I made my way, in a puzzled state, over to Base 35 and sat around in Lieutenant F—’s clinic and watched him do complicated and skillful things to the ears of many a doughboy. Finally he said; —
‘Now, Loot, I’ll treat you.’
I eyed his murderous array of cutlery with considerable conservatism. But, instead of cutting me up, he took off his apron, washed his hands, and led the way to his sleeping-quarters. The first thing I saw there showed me how the Ear Man was going to treat me. It was a ’cello that dangled by the neck from a nail in the door, like the spy that the surgeon major had n’t taken me for.
I fell upon it with loud, carnivorous cries. The Ear Man immediately produced a flute from the bureau drawer; and we began, without a second’s hesitation, on that time-honored duet known as Titl’s ‘Serenade.’
When the Ear Man’s breath failed, I recalled the fact that I had breathed practically my first infant breath into the flute. So we swapped instruments and did La Paloma. By this time we had amassed a large and encouraging audience of medical men in the little room, and they demanded a programme ranging all the way from ‘Just a Baby’s Prayer at Twilight,’ to ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee,’ which last selection, I impolitely pointed out to them, might more appropriately be played to their patients.
All this time my subconsciousness was busy with the fact that I had not touched a ’cello since before the Flood. I enjoyed the pleasantly piquant contrast between the feel of barbed wire and automatic triggers and the more novel but agreeable texture of wire strings and a ’cello bow.
Mess-call sounding, the audience insisted that we adjourn with our instruments, and serenade the assembled officers. The incident turned out to be all the more enjoyable when the commandant of 35 discovered that he was a friend of my brother, the medical corps colonel, and informed me that said brother had recently arrived in France and was stationed only sixty kilometres away.
Then I hobbled across the railroad tracks with the Ear Man’s ’cello. The medical major beamed when he saw it.
‘ Ah, that’s what my nurses are keen to hear. I’ve told them about you and the treatment I prescribed. Won’t you play to them to-night at their club?’
‘Yes, sir, if you’ll accompany me.’
The kind major’s face fell an octave.
‘Three of my poor boys are probably going Wast before morning. I can’t possibly leave them. But did n’t I hear you say that you had found a pianist in your ward?’
I had indeed! It had come about this way. In a bed halfway down the hall lay a captain from my own regiment. One afternoon I had heard somebody whistling Chopin softly to himself, and whistling it excellently well. I sat up and traced the sound to Captain V—. Then I whistled an answer-
ing strain. He was as surprised as I had been.
To offset the tedium of hospital life we developed a musical contest of sorts. One of us would start a melody, and if the other one could not take it up wherever it stopped, the starter would score one. If he could, however, he got the jump on the other fellow. The officers in the intervening bunks disregarded our soft pipings as things foreign to their natures.
But one day, when one of us was scoring heavily on a Brahms symphony, a pair of lips at the far end of the ward took up the tale with elegance and precision.
The captain and I jerked our heads about in surprise, and discovered this unexpected source of Brahms to be Major W—, ranking patient of the ward, the man with the shrapnel hole in his hip.
In high excitement I pulled on bathrobe and slippers and made my way down the aisle. After half an hour’s conversation with him, I knew that I had discovered a musical amateur twenty-one karats fine. His memory for melodies was all-compendious, his taste was like refined gold, and he played the piano.
When I came to him that evening and showed him the Ear Man’s ’cello, and said that the nurses were keen for some music, and did he feel able to get as far as the club and accompany me a bit, he painfully dragged on his clothes, crowned all with a leather jerkin (for his very blouse had been stolen by some ambulance driver who was no respecter of rank), and we hobbled forth through the deep mud for which the Mars Hospital Centre was notorious.
But before I had time to strip off the Ear Man’s ’cello’s chemise, Major W— lurched at the keys like a starv-
ing man — and the heavens were opened. What was that wonderful piece he was playing? It began like a sort of cross between Ropartz and Reger. But after a few bars I could have sworn it was some master-work of Franck that had somehow escaped my ears till that moment. Pretty soon it sounded like a great but unknown piece by Bach, and then it turned into a mighty four-part fugue such as Beethoven ought to have written, but never got around to.
‘What on earth is that?’ I half shouted when the major crashed the final chord.
‘Oh, just a little thing that occurred to me.’
I gasped. ‘You don’t mean that you improvised it?’
I had heard it said that there was only one musician alive who could improvise really well, and that he always improvised on the same theme. But this revelation was beginning to make me doubt it.
‘Yes,’ said he in a matter-of-fact tone. ‘Now let’s have a look at your music.’
It had not occurred to me until then, but there was no music.
‘Never mind,’ said the major. ‘What are a few printed sheets between friends ? Let’s find out what the audience would like to hear.’
The head nurse said, ‘The Bach Air in D major’; and the major played that exacting accompaniment out of his head, with a caressing, delicate touch and a meticulous exactitude which showed me that he was the fabulous golden accompanist at the foot of the rainbow, and that I had at length caught up to him.
A tall blonde insisted on being carried back to old Virginny, and the major variegated the journey with new and richer harmonies, and a playfully contrapuntal bass.
Then the good angel we affectionately termed ‘The Corporal,’ she who had given us that memorable bath when we emerged from the cattle-car incrusted with all the strata of geologic France, demanded Wagner. And we rendered right lustily Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, the Grail Procession, the Good Friday Spell, Siegmund’s Love Song, and a large part of the Tannhäuser and Meistersinger overtures.
To please little Miss Fluffy Ruffles, we coquetted with Dvorak’s Humoresque, while the major found extra fingers enough to render ‘The Old Folks at Home’ at the same time — an excellently successful musical marriage.
Then, after doing a lot of the third Beethoven Sonata at the request of that very creative listener, the surgeon major, who had dropped in during the marriage ceremony, we played nearly all the works of Stephen Foster and the Allied national airs, not even forgetting poor Russia, my colleague improvising the while the most stunningly florid figurated basses and the most gorgeous new harmonies that a national air ever tried on like an Easter bonnet.
And then the surgeon major sternly drove us to bed, on the principle that casualties must not get over-ambitious. And he even insisted on carrying that ’cello with his own hands back through the mud to the Ear Man. He declared that he felt so jubilant over meeting up with real music again after all those months that, were it not for the geography of the pianist’s wound and my own, he would feel like shouting, ‘Hip, hip, hooray!’
And thus it was that my old friend the Atlantic, when things came to the pinch, procured me toothpaste, solitude, a sweater, companionship, socks, and fiddlers’ luck.