One Man's Initiation-1917 - novelonlinefull.com
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One Man's Initiation--1917.
by John Dos Pa.s.sos.
In the huge shed of the wharf, piled with crates and baggage, broken by gang-planks leading up to ships on either side, a band plays a tinselly Hawaiian tune; people are dancing in and out among the piles of trunks and boxes. There is a scattering of khaki uniforms, and many young men stand in groups laughing and talking in voices pitched shrill with excitement. In the brown light of the wharf, full of rows of yellow crates and barrels and sacks, full of racket of cranes, among which winds in and out the trivial lilt of the Hawaiian tune, there is a flutter of gay dresses and coloured hats of women, and white handkerchiefs.
The booming reverberation of the ship's whistle drowns all other sound.
After it the noise of farewells rises shrill. White handkerchiefs are agitated in the brown light of the shed. Ropes crack in pulleys as the gang-planks are raised.
Again, at the pierhead, white handkerchiefs and cheering and a flutter of coloured dresses. On the wharf building a flag spreads exultingly against the azure afternoon sky.
Rosy yellow and drab purple, the buildings of New York slide together into a pyramid above brown smudges of smoke standing out in the water, linked to the land by the dark curves of the bridges.
In the fresh harbour wind comes now and then a salt-wafting breath off the sea.
Martin Howe stands in the stern that trembles with the vibrating push of the screw. A boy standing beside him turns and asks in a tremulous voice, "This your first time across?"
"Yes.... I never used to think that at nineteen I'd be crossing the Atlantic to go to a war in France." The boy caught himself up suddenly and blushed. Then swallowing a lump in his throat he said, "It ought to be time to eat."
"_G.o.d help Kaiser Bill!
O-o-o old Uncle Sam.
He's got the cavalry, He's got the infantry He's got the artillery; And then by G.o.d we'll all go to Germany!
G.o.d help Kaiser Bill!_"
The iron covers are clamped on the smoking-room windows, for no lights must show. So the air is dense with tobacco smoke and the reek of beer and champagne. In one corner they are playing poker with their coats off. All the chairs are full of sprawling young men who stamp their feet to the time, and bang their fists down so that the bottles dance on the tables.
"_G.o.d help Kaiser Bill._"
Sky and sea are opal grey. Martin is stretched on the deck in the bow of the boat with an unopened book beside him. He has never been so happy in his life. The future is nothing to him, the past is nothing to him. All his life is effaced in the grey languor of the sea, in the soft surge of the water about the ship's bow as she ploughs through the long swell, eastward. The tepid moisture of the Gulf Stream makes his clothes feel damp and his hair stick together into curls that straggle over his forehead. There are porpoises about, lazily tumbling in the swell, and flying-fish skim from one grey wave to another, and the bow rises and falls gently in rhythm with the surging sing-song of the broken water.
Martin has been asleep. As through infinite mists of greyness he looks back on the sharp hatreds and wringing desires of his life. Now a leaf seems to have been turned and a new white page spread before him, clean and unwritten on. At last things have come to pa.s.s.
And very faintly, like music heard across the water in the evening, blurred into strange harmonies, his old watchwords echo a little in his mind. Like the red flame of the sunset setting fire to opal sea and sky, the old exaltation, the old flame that would consume to ashes all the lies in the world, the trumpet-blast under which the walls of Jericho would fall down, stirs and broods in the womb of his grey la.s.situde. The bow rises and falls gently in rhythm with the surging sing-song of the broken water, as the steamer ploughs through the long swell of the Gulf Stream, eastward.
"See that guy, the feller with the straw hat; he lost five hundred dollars at c.r.a.ps last night."
It is almost dark. Sea and sky are glowing claret colour, darkened to a cold bluish-green to westward. In a corner of the deck a number of men are crowded in a circle, while one shakes the dice in his hand with a strange nervous quiver that ends in a snap of the fingers as the white dice roll on the deck.
From the smoking-room comes a sound of singing and gla.s.ses banged on tables.
"_Oh, we're bound for the Hamburg show, To see the elephant and the wild kangaroo, An' we'll all stick together In fair or foul weather, For we're going to see the d.a.m.n show through!_"
On the settee a sallow young man is shaking the ice in a whisky-and-soda into a nervous tinkle as he talks:
"There's nothing they can do against this new gas.... It just corrodes the lungs as if they were rotten in a dead body. In the hospitals they just stand the poor devils up against a wall and let them die. They say their skin turns green and that it takes from five to seven days to die--five to seven days of slow choking."
"Oh, but I think it's so splendid of you"--she bared all her teeth, white and regular as those in a dentist's show-case, in a smile as she spoke--"to come over this way to help France."
"Perhaps it's only curiosity," muttered Martin.
"Oh no.... You're too modest.... What I mean is that it's so splendid to have understood the issues.... That's how I feel. I just told dad I'd have to come and do my bit, as the English say."
"What are you going to do?"
"Something in Paris. I don't know just what, but I'll certainly make myself useful somehow." She beamed at him provocatively. "Oh, if only I was a man, I'd have shouldered my gun the first day; indeed I would."
"But the issues were hardly ... defined then," ventured Martin.
"They didn't need to be. I hate those brutes. I've always hated the Germans, their language, their country, everything about them. And now that they've done such frightful things ..."
"I wonder if it's all true ..."
"True! Oh, of course it's all true; and lots more that it hasn't been possible to print, that people have been ashamed to tell."
"They've gone pretty far," said Martin, laughing.
"If there are any left alive after the war they ought to be chloroformed.... And really I don't think it's patriotic or humane to take the atrocities so lightly.... But really, you must excuse me if you think me rude; I do get so excited and wrought up when I think of those frightful things.... I get quite beside myself; I'm sure you do too, in your heart.... Any red-blooded person would."
"Only I doubt ..."
"But you're just playing into their hands if you do that.... Oh, dear, I'm quite beside myself, just thinking of it." She raised a small gloved hand to her pink cheek in a gesture of horror, and settled herself comfortably in her deck chair. "Really, I oughtn't to talk about it. I lose all self-control when I do. I hate them so it makes me quite ill.... The curs! The Huns! Let me tell you just one story.... I know it'll make your blood boil. It's absolutely authentic, too. I heard it before I left New York from a girl who's really the best friend I have on earth. She got it from a friend of hers who had got it directly from a little Belgian girl, poor little thing, who was in the convent at the time.... Oh, I don't see why they ever take any prisoners; I'd kill them all like mad dogs."
"What's the story?"
"Oh, I can't tell it. It upsets me too much.... No, that's silly, I've got to begin facing realities.... It was just when the Germans were taking Bruges, the Uhlans broke into this convent.... But I think it was in Louvain, not Bruges.... I have a wretched memory for names.... Well, they broke in, and took all those poor defenceless little girls ..."
"There's the dinner-bell."
"Oh, so it is. I must run and dress. I'll have to tell you later...."
Through half-closed eyes, Martin watched the fluttering dress and the backs of the neat little white shoes go jauntily down the deck.
The smoking-room again. Clink of gla.s.ses and chatter of confident voices. Two men talking over their gla.s.ses.
"They tell me that Paris is some city."