An Officer, but a Gentleman
MADAME LAMBRUCHE had a little house in the outskirts of Prèz-sous-Lafauche — a house which seemed so tiny that elves must have built it. Over the high wall which protected it from the street, one could see only the very tips of the chimneys. The gate itself which let into this secluded habitation was narrow and low, and surmounted by a sort of little projecting roof, made of red tiles. When one lifted the iron latch and opened the gate, a bell, which sounded as if it were coming from the neck of some sacrificial heifer, was tapped into activity and, if one looked up, he saw it trembling flower-like at the end of a delicate curved stem.
When the Zone Major came to Prèzsous-Lafauche, one of his first duties was to go through the houses of the village and estimate as far as possible the number of officers, men, and animals he could billet in them. He carried with him white oblong boards, about four by twelve, marked off into three parts—parts lettered respectively 0., H., C., meaning Officiers,, Hommes, Chevaux.
The rules of billeting were very simple: they demanded courtesy and tact, a bed for an officer, and four feet of floor space for a man.
The Zone Major was a most conscientious young lieutenant, but he hated his detail. He hated it as a whole and in part. Yet if he hated one thing about it more than another, it was bullying the good old souls of Prèz-sous-Lafauche into crowding a squad of noisy democrats into their quiet granges, and forcing some idealistic and muddy company commander into their best bedroom.
However, he had nothing to say about it and, thanks to the kindliness of Monsieur Morleux, the Maire, to his own scrupulous disregard of orders re commissary supplies, and to the seriousness with which the French fought the war, he succeeded very well in labeling most of the houses and barns with his tripartite billet boards.
Until he came to Madame Lambruche.
When he opened the narrow green gate and heard the flower-like bell tinkle above his head, he knew that he had not the heart to violate the sanctity of this beautiful spot. The little yard before the house had two round flower-plots, each bordered with pebbles as shiny and white as scrubbing could make them. A lime tree stood in one corner, beneath which had been placed an iron table, its three legs intertwined near the ground and thence lightly touching the pebbles as if they had been enchanted by a malignant fairy during a dance. A green settee was beside it.
He had barely time to take in all this, and the phlox under the windows and the brass knocker on the door and the merle in a wicker cage, when the housedoor opened before him, and Madame Lambruche stepped out, her wrinkled forehead not betokening the most cordial of welcomes.
‘Madame, c’est le major de zone américain,’ stuttered the Zone Major, who felt as if he had stepped into Mother Goose and were addressing any one of her ancient heroines who wear peaked hats and Watteau skirts.
‘Le major de zone américain.’
‘I have no reclamations to present, monsieur,’ said Madame Lambruche.
The Zone Major blushed.
‘I am not here, madame, to register the reclamations.’
Madame Lambruche drew up the corners of her mouth. What possible business could he have here, then, to intrude upon a lonely old woman?
Shamefacedly, and blushing again, the Zone Major explained that it was his duty to look over her premises and see what room she had to billet soldiers in. He would be very careful indeed, and if she had no room, he would not think of imposing upon her.
She was finally persuaded to let him enter. While he was in the house, she eyed him with suspicion and contempt, and hastily dusted what articles of furniture his uniform brushed against.
The interior of the place was as much like an illustration to a story-book as the outside. Old polished tables of oak, quaint peasant plates with red and green cocks upon them, an elaborate gilt barometer, a porcelain stove in the corner, tall carved armoires with brass knobs on the paneled doors, all helped lo give him the impression of an older and quieter civilization. There were but four rooms on the ground floor.
The Zone Major made for the garden door.
‘Is it necessary to inspect my vegetables?' asked Madame Lambruche, putting her hand over the door-knob.
‘ Oh, no, but the grenier —'
‘You can see the grenier from the front,’ she replied firmly and finally.
The Zone Major turned without a word and went to the front of the house. Once safely outside, Madame Lambruche breathed a sigh of relief and told him where he could find a ladder. He took the ladder, leaned it against the grenier door, climbed up, pushed open the door, and looked into the dark and musty hole. Then he slowly descended and reached into his musette for a billet board.
‘You are not going to put some soldiers up there, are you?’ cried Madame Lambruche.
‘But yes,’ said the Zone Major imperturbably; and with his heavy lithographer’s pencil he dug a thick black ‘2’ into the board alongside the ‘H.’
‘I should be grateful to you,’ he said with a bow, ‘to be good enough to permit us to fasten this board on your gate.’
But Madame Lambruche with her hands in the air had fled into the cottage crying aloud.
’If you had gone into the garden,’ said the Commandant Lerocher to the Zone Major that night, as they sat over their coffee, ‘you would have seen her daughter Eulalie.'
The white paint had long since begun to peel off the billet board under the steady rains; divisions came and went, carrying off souvenirs of the little village, breaking hearts and making conquests, writing back unintelligible letters, or not writing them, according to their temperament. Cantigny had been fought and won, Seicheprey was forgotten, the retreat from Soissons was ancient history. But all this time the sanctity of the little cottage under the lime tree was preserved, and no American hand pushed open the green gate and shook the delicate bell.
At length a division arrived, fresh from the States, its rolls filled to bursting with high-spirited replacements in campaign hats and canvas leggins, and the Zone Major assigned its sanitary train to Prèz-sous-Lafauche.
A word on sanitary trains.
All army outfits have their individuality. Two infantry regiments may fight in the same brigade from the date on which they are organized to the date on which they are mustered out, but they will be no more alike than two brothers. But sanitary trains are different. They are all alike in having more strange, uncanny, spooky people in them than any other organizations in the service. They are required to do such disagreeable work, they have so little recompense for what they do, that they become the haven of all those men who think themselves the victims of persecution and who sometimes are.
This one was no exception.
Private Roland MacDougal was a gentleman, but no soldier. He somehow lacked a proper reverence for externals. Everything about him drooped. His hair was long and dark and drooped in a thick lock over his left eye. His ears, of more than average contenance, drooped over his cheek-bones. His lower lip drooped over his chin and his head over his chest. His left shoulder sagged, and his blouse — the only one in the army properly so called — was correctively longer on the left side than on the right. His web belt was too long for his thin waist, and he had not the initiative to cut it off; consequently, the surplus end hung down over his breeches like the keys at the waist of a châtelaine. His knees were baggy, and from beneath his leggins his shoe-laces hung over his shoes, where they flapped miserably as he walked. All in all he looked like a straggly weeping-willow tree.
His looks, combined with a natural passion for doing good to others and an utter ignorance of his own worth, which in a less knightly soul would have made him a conscientious objector, selected him for the Medical Corps.
When the Zone Major attempted to squeeze the sanitary train into Prèzsous-Lafauche, it was inevitable that, if anyone was to be left out in the cold, MacDougal should be he. For he was the sort of soldier whose gas-mask is never marked, who never succeeds in getting an identification tag, and who is always near the end of the mess line.
It had taken about eight hours to placate everybody in the train, from the lieutenant colonel commanding, who wanted the billet at the château, although it was cold and draughty and although — or perhaps because — his having it would make the major commanding the field hospitals move to the field-ambulance area, down to Corporal Jefferson Hawkins, 3rd, as he announced himself, who insisted that he be allowed to pitch a tent in Monsieur Morleux’s wheat field instead of sleeping in Madame Pochard’s barn, which he sternly and truly said was unfit for cows, let alone men. When, finally, everybody had been housed and the sound of harmonicas had arisen throughout the village, playing songs which carried the men to St. Louis and the girls to Paradise, the Zone Major blew out the candle in his office, turned the key in the door, and fell over the limp form of Private Roland MacDougal, who had somehow been thrown on the doorstep and stuck. ‘Good God! ’ he cried, ‘what’s that?’
The lank form uncurled itself and seemed to hoist itself into an S-shaped posture. A hand at the end of a limp sleeve timorously came in contact with the brim of a campaign hat.
‘Private MacDougal reports to the lieutenant that he ain’t got no billet.’
‘Why not?’ asked the lieutenant.
‘Nobody assigned me any.’
The Zone Major had been through this too often to show his disturbance.
Wearily he reopened the door and lit the light. He examined the billeting list — or ‘repertoire of inhabitants,’ as it was officially known.
MacDougal stood before him in the candle-light, the picture of dejection. He made one or two tentative efforts as if to speak, and gulped back his words. The Zone Major guessed that he had learned his lesson; suggestion comes from above in the army.
‘ Did you want to ask me something? ’ said the Zone Major, concealing his emotion in an air of business.
‘Could — could the lieutenant billet me alone? I ain’t been by myself since I was drafted.’
The Zone Major abruptly stopped his scrutiny of the list. Billeted alone? Did the man think he was a general? No one was allowed to be alone in the army. Pitiless publicity was maintained from bathing to praying. Solitude might lead to reflection and reflection to crime. Maybe General Pershing was sometimes alone, but that was because he was above suspicion. And even he had aides. Yet to be alone was the one desire the Zone Major had had ever since he enlisted. To find a kindred feeling in MacDougal was so grateful an experience that a solution of the housing difficulty was soon reached.
‘Come with me,’ he said.
The officer and the man went down the village street together, between rows of men who were happy because they had eaten. The kitchen police were already peeling potatoes for the breakfast hash before the rolling kitchens, which projected long, dancing shadows across the road. The muledrivers were watering the stock at the picket-lines and cursing their charges as they tended them. There was a general hum of voices, broken now and then by a girl’s high laugh, by the sharp and rapid staccato of some angry peasant woman, and by the occasional call of a cuckoo in the woods, all accompanied by the everlasting harmonicas and the restless champing of the horses in their strange quarters.
They reached the outskirts of the village and stood before a narrow green gate.
‘Go in there,’ said the Zone Major brutally to MacDougal, ‘and the old woman will fix you up.’
He pushed his drooping friend through the gate into the yard of Madame Lambruche, while the little bell violently protested; then, coward that he was, he sneaked off to Louis’s for a drink.
He thought no more of the matter until six weeks later, when the train began to move and the trucks and wagons were spattering drops of mud over all the passers-by. The wheels were put on the rolling kitchens. The latrines were filled up. Men were flying round from one end of the village to the other. Peasants were writing up their claims for broken windows and trampled wheat, that they might be presented within twenty-four hours after the departure of the troops. Poor old Morleux’s arm ached for weeks after such an event, with the unavoidable scaling and stamping and signing entailed. Officers were cursing out their men; men were belittling their officers. Louis, the café-keeper, was surreptitiously putting cognac into the soldiers’ canteens, and the soldiers were openly passing the good news along. It was 6.30 A.M., and the men were already lined up in marching order, for the outfit was to move at eight.
The Zone Major’s office was overflowing with commanding officers, orderlies, French officials, liaison officers, the mayor, interpreters, loafers, chauffeurs, scribes and Pharisees. As ants swarm over a piece of apple thrown on the roadside, so they swarmed over this officer thrown out of active combat into the S.O.S. He had to answer every conceivable question, from how far it was to Toul, to how could the C.O.
Of the——th Ambulance Company get
A censor stamp.
Always sad on such occasions, always feeling as if deserted by all his friends, as if quite alone in a hostile and alien world, the Zone Major did his best to satisfy everyone. Suddenly, pulled by a hidden magic, he looked up from his desk to the drawn and frightened face of Madame Lambruche.
‘Monsieur,’ she whispered through the crowd, ‘must they take him?’
‘Whom, madame?’ asked the Zone Major, elbowing his way through the colonels to where she stood clutching her shawl about her.
‘The good little MacDougal. Oh, they must not take him — there are so many others.’
The Zone Major gently led her out of the hubbub and walked with her to her cottage.
‘Come and see, monsieur, how we make the good ménage together. Ah, if they take him, it will kill my Eulalie; it will kill me; he is my fils de guerre.’
The fragile shrunken body of this woman, who at their first meeting had been so reserved, so cold, so inimical, was shaken by ill-controlled sobs. She clung to the arm of the American as if he were her court of last resort. But the court of last resort was mystified; he was thoroughly alarmed. What had that soft, doughy, lanky, misshapen idiot of a MacDougal been doing in Fairyland? He pictured all sorts of horrid tricks, and began to wonder where he should confine him. Such was his efficient mind.
‘Come, come see, monsieur,’ went on Madame Lambruche. ‘See how good he is to us. He is more than a son. He is an angel sent by the good God. My poor Eulalie is a different girl.’
They arrived at the cottage, and Madame Lambruche impelled the Zone Major through the gate, to the horror of the bell, which nodded on its curved stem as if it had the ague. There under the lime tree sat Private MacDougal on the green settee, a beatific smile on his face, his arms outstretched as if they were in stocks, with a hank of O.D. wool wrapped round them. Beside him sat a young girl with fair hair, who was winding the O.D. wool into a ball.
When Private MacDougal saw the Zone Major, he unfolded himself from the settee, much as a deck-chair unfolds itself. He was standing at what to him was ‘Attention.’ His two imprisoned hands were having a hard time to place themselves at his sides, thumbs along the seams of his breeches.
‘What in God’s name are you doing here?’ thundered the Zone Major, who really wanted to retreat instead of to thunder, ‘while the train is pulling out? ’
‘Winding wool, sir,’ replied Private MacDougal.
‘W-w-w-winding wool? What the devil are you doing that for?’
‘For a sweater, sir. Yoolaly is going to make me a sweater.’
‘But they’ll be calling the roll in a minute.’
‘They’ll never miss me, lieutenant. Can I sit down now?’
‘Qu’il est beau!’ sighed Madame Lambruche, in ecstasy, clasping and unclasping her hands. ‘You are going to let him stay?’
‘ It is impossible, madame. I am not his commanding officer. Besides,’ — sternly, — ‘he is a soldier.’
The Zone Major drew himself up like Napoleon as he said this.
‘Same old bunk,’ breathed MacDougal with resignation. ‘They always says that when there’s dirty work to be done.’
The Zone Major’s dignity and unmanifested respect for MacDougal increased simultaneously.
‘They’ll be sounding Assembly before you know,’ he said coldly. ‘Say good-bye and fall in before your C.O. finds you here.’
MacDougal withdrew his hands from the wool, entangling it in the process, loped across the yard to the ladder, and slithered up it to the grenier. In a few minutes he reappeared with his helmet on over his overseas cap, chin-strap back of his head, blouse unbuttoned, his square Medical-Corps pack bulging and deformed, with one strap unfastened and hanging loose. He was the model of the amateur warrior, unhampered by training.
‘ Button up your blouse,’ snapped the Zone Major, while the women looked on with terror and love struggling to control their faces. ‘Put your helmet on straight. Fasten that strap. Now say good-bye and join your outfit..’
Madame Lambruche began to cry, and Eulalie to wind wool furiously.
MacDougal actually appeared to straighten up as he walked toward her, with his left hand holding his pack from falling.
‘Good-bye, Yoolaly,’ he said, ‘non cry — moi partir mais send letters from the front, ness par? Toujours you’ll get news of me, toujours.'
Eulalie arose, threw back her head proudly, and kissed him.
Then she smiled through her tears. ‘ Goude-mornang,’ she said, and held out her hand like a man.
‘She thinks that means “good-bye,” lieutenant,’ said MacDougal apologetically.
He turned to Madame Lambruche.
‘Good-bye, mother,’ he said.
‘Adieu, au revoir!’ cried Madame Lambruche, grasping him by both arms; ‘you are a soldier and you must fight. But we shall see you again. Au revoir et bonne chance, mon petit, mon fils.’
And she kissed him on both cheeks.
MacDougal gulped hard and then, ‘French custom,’ he explained over her shoulder to the Zone Major.
And he fell in, presumably, with his outfit.
As soon as the boy had left the yard, the two women ran to one another and wept long and painfully.
‘Five sons have I lost in the war,’ sobbed Madame Lambruche, ‘and no sooner do I gain one from across the ocean to take their places, than he too is taken. Seigneur have pity on me, an old woman.’
She ceased and turned to the Zone Major.
‘At least you can leave me and my daughter in peace,’ she said brokenly.
The Zone Major withdrew.
He reached his office in low spirits, to find there Bedlam.
‘How can I raise Chaumont on the ’phone?’
‘Have you a map of the Baccarat Sector?’
‘Who’s town major in Commercy?’
‘ Why must we leave a claims-officer behind?’
‘ What do these criss-crosses mean on the map?’
‘This order says to make Toul by the twelfth, and it’s now the thirteenth.’
‘ Who’s Daylight ? ’
The Zone Major responded as well as he could. The start was then two hours late, and cries of ‘When do we eat?’ arose from the highway.
Finally, a little fat lieutenant burst into the office, looking for his company commander.
‘Captain,’ he shrieked, ‘got one man too many in the company. What shall I do?’
‘That’s your funeral,’ replied the captain cheerfully; ‘you’re personnel officer.’
‘Am I responsible when we’ve got too many men ? ’
‘Am I?’ asked the captain.
The lieutenant scratched his head.
‘Looks to me as if nobody was,’ he reflected.
He left the office whistling.
At length the train left, three hours late.
As the Zone Major was quitting his office for luncheon, his experience of six weeks earlier was repeated. Sitting on the doorstep, alone and contented, like an abandoned dog who has found a new master, was Private Roland MacDougal.
‘You?’ said the Zone Major.
‘Was present but not accounted for,’ replied MacDougal, limply touching his right eyebrow. ‘Guess the lieutenant ’s responsible for me, sir.'
He held out an envelope to the Zone Major.
‘My service record, sir,’ he said; ‘first time I have had to get rid of it since I left Camp Grant.’
The Zone Major wiped his damp forehead with his handkerchief.
‘G-go, and report to Madame Lambruche for duty,’ he said.
‘Sir,’ said MacDougal, wringing his commander’s hand, ‘you’re an officer, but a gentleman.’
And he sauntered off down the road toward the little cottage, where he may still be, for all anyone knows.