Through the Wheat
THROUGH THE WHEAT
Copyright, 1923, by
CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS
Printed in the United States of America
Published April, 1923
THROUGH THE WHEAT
Dusk, like soft blue smoke, fell with thedying spring air and settled upon thenorthern French village. In the uncertainlight one and two story buildings set along thecrooked street showed crisply, bearing a resemblanceto false teeth in an ash-old face. Toyoung Hicks, disconsolate as he leaned againstthe outer wall of the French canteen, uponwhose smooth white surface his body made anunseemly blot, life was worth very little.
For nine interminable months William Hickshad been in France, shunted from one place toanother, acting out the odious office of the militarypolice, working as a stevedore beside evil-odoredblacks, helping to build cantonments andreservoirs for new soldiers ever arriving from theUnited States.
And he was supposed to be a soldier. He hadenlisted with at least the tacit understandingthat he was some day to fight. At the recruitingoffice in Cincinnati the bespangled sergeanthad told him: “Join the marines and see somereal action.” And the heart of William Hickshad fled to the rich brogue and campaign ribbonsthat the sergeant professionally wore.
But was this action? Was this war? Wasthis for what William Hicks had come toFrance? Well, he told himself, it was not.Soldiering with a shovel. A hell of a way totreat a white man. There were plenty of peopleto dig holes in the ground, but not manyof them could qualify as sharpshooters. AndHicks swelled his chest a trifle, noticing the glintof the metal marksmanship badge on his tunic.
Resting beside him on the ground was a displayof unopened food tins above which rose theslender necks of bottles. Of the bottles therewere four, prisoning the white wine of the northernFrench vineyards. Excessive in numberwere the cans, and they looked as if their contentswere edible. But Hicks was not sure.He had bought them from the wizened littleFrench clerk who had regarded him with suspicionthrough the window of the canteen. Forthis suspicion, this slight hostility, Hicks didnot blame the little Frenchman. He had, herealized, made an ass of himself by pointing toambiguously labelled cans piled on the shelvesinside the canteen and saying: “la, combien?”Now he possessed a choice array of cans ofwhose contents he knew nothing. All that heasked was that he might be able to eat it.
That morning he had marched into the townwith his tired platoon from a small deserted railwaystation some miles distant. Once assignedto the houses in which they were to be billeted,the men had unstrapped their blankets andfallen asleep. But not Hicks. He had exploredthe village with an eye to disposing of the massof soiled and torn franc-notes which he carriedin his pocket. In the French canteen he hadfound the place for which he was looking. Andso he had stood before the clerk, demanding tobuy as much of the stock as he could carry.
But the clerk had closed the window, leavingHicks with a handful of French money and thetinned food and four bottles of vin blanc.Hence his disconsolation. The roll of paper feltunnatural, superfluous in his pocket. He wastempted to fling it away. In the morning theplatoon would find the canteen and buy the lastcan, the last bottle.
Restive, he ran his lean fingers through hisuncombed hair, wondering vaguely whether itwere true that his regiment was soon to departfor the front.
It must be true, he decided. There had beenan untoward attitude on the part of his officerssince the moment that the departure of the platoonhad been made known. Their destinationhad been scrupulously kept from them. In corroboration,a long-range gun boomed sullenly inthe distance.
The noise produced in him a not unpleasantshiver of apprehension. He met it, summoninga quiet smile of scorn. Yes, he would be gladto go to the front, to that vague place fromwhich men returned with their mutilated bodies.Not that he was vengeful. His feeling for theGerman army was desultory, a blend of kaleidoscopicemotions in which hate never entered.But in conflict, he felt, would arise a reason forhis now unbearable existence.
The grinning weakness which men called authorityhad followed him since the day of hisenlistment at the beginning of the war. It hadturned thoughts of valor into horrible nightmares,the splendor of achievement into debasedbickering. Most of the men, it seemedto him, had not entered the army to further theaccomplishment of a common motive; they hadenlisted or had been made officers and gentlemen—Congresshad generously made itself thecultural father of officers—for the purpose ofaiding their personal ambitions.
It had darkened. Hicks gathered up hissorry feast and sauntered off through the shaking,mysterious shadows to his pallet of straw.
Stretched out upon individual beds of strawwhich had been strewn over the stone floor, themembers of the platoon were lying before ahuge fireplace that drew badly in the earlyspring wind. In all of their nine months inFrance this was the first time that they hadthus lain, not knowing what was to come on thefollowing day, nor caring, being only satisfiedby the warmth which came from the fireplace,by their sense of feeling intact and comfortable.
In this sense of reconciliation John Pugh, theMississippi gambler, forgot his everlasting dice-throwing,which every pay-day that the platoonhad thus far known had won for him moremoney than his company commander receivedfrom the United States Government.
He sighed, elongating his limbs beneath hisblanket. He made an effort to rise, and succeededin resting the weight of his torso on hisarm which he had crooked under him. Cautiouslyhe felt for a cigarette beneath his tunic,which he was using for a pillow. He got thecigarette and a match, then held them in hishand, hesitant.
His eyes, large and dolorous, searched thedimly lighted room, scanning the recumbentfigures to discover whether they were asleep.Men were lying, their shoes beside their heads,their army packs, rifles, leaning against the walland the remainder of their equipment scatterednear by. They were silent, motionless.
“I guess I can risk it,” thought Pugh, andhe carefully struck the match and lighted hiscigarette.
As the match was rubbed over the floorheads appeared; the stillness was broken.
“Oh, Jack, thought you didn’t have anymore cigarettes.”
“You got fifty francs offa me last month. Ithink you ought to give me a smoke!” Thevoice was reproachful.
Effectually and instantly Pugh checked theavalanche of reproach:
“Hey, you fellas, there’s beaucoup mail upat regimental headquahtas.”
The clumsy shadows in the darkened roomanswered:
“Cut out that crap.”
“How do you get that way, Jack? Youknow there ain’t no mail up at regimental.”
“Well,” Pugh sighed, “if you all don’ wannaheah f’m your mammy I don’ give a damn....Oh-o. What you all got, Hicks?”
Hicks had arrived at his billet, his arms filledwith the bottles of wine and the cans of thequestionable contents.
Candles were lighted and set on the helmetsof the men. Bodies rose to a sitting posture,eyes on Hicks.
“Gimme a drink, Hicksy!”
“Hooray, look what Hicks’s got.”
“Yeh, gimme a drink.”
The voices were clamorous.
“Gimme, gimme? Was your mouth boredout with a gimlet,” Hicks jeered. “Why didn’tyou buy some?”
They formed a semicircle around the fireplacein front of which Hicks sat with his plunder.
Over the bottles they grew noisily talkative.
“Say, have you fellows seen any of thesenew guys here?” asked Hicks. “I was walkin’down one of the streets by the Frog canteenand one of ’em asked me if I was in the ballooncorps. I told him yes, and asked him how heguessed it, and he said, ‘Oh, I saw that balloonon your cap.’”
“They sure are a bunch of funny birds. Iast one of ’em how long he’d been over on thisside and he said: ‘About three weeks—seenanybody that’s come over lately?’”
A contingent of soldiers which had arrived inthe village that afternoon were, therefore, objectsof scorn and hostility.
“Aw, they’re some of them fellahs that thewind blew in. Pretty soon they’ll have thehome guards over here.”
“They will like hell! If you could git themhome guards away from home you’d sure haveto hump. They’re home guards—they guardour women while we’re over here.” Thespeaker seemed afraid that his listeners wouldnot understand that he was stressing the wordhome.
“Yeh, they’s one of ’em guardin’ my gal tooclose. I got a lettah....”
“You’re lucky to get any kind of a letter.Here I been for three months and not a word.I don’t know whether they all died or what,”Hicks ended gloomily.
“Aw cheer up, Hicksy, old boy. Maybe yourmail was on that transport that got sunk.”
A head was thrust in the door. It was thefirst sergeant.
“Pipe down, you damned recruits. Lightsare supposed to be out at eight o’clock. If youguys want to git work detail for the rest of yourlives——”
“All right, you dirty German spy. Git thehell out of here and let us sleep.”
All of the candles had been put out as soonas the voice of the first sergeant was heard.The men had flung themselves on their beds.Now each one pretended to be asleep.
“Who said that?” The first sergeant wasfurious. “I’ll work you birds till your shoesfall off.”
The room answered with loud and affectedsnores. The first sergeant, in all of his fierceness,disappeared.
It was morning.
Sergeant Kerfoot Harriman, bearing withproud satisfaction the learning and culture hehad acquired in the course of three years at asmall Middle-Western university, walked downthe Rue de Dieu in a manner which carried thesuggestion that he had forgotten the belt of hisbreeches.
Approaching a white two-story stone buildingwhich age and an occasional long-distance Germanshell had given an air of solemn decrepitude,Sergeant Harriman unbent enough toshout stiltedly: “Mailo! Mailo-ho!”
His reiterated announcement was unnecessary.Already half-dressed soldiers were rushingthrough the entrance of the building andtoward the approaching sergeant.
“All right, you men. If you can’t appear inuniform get off of the company street.” SergeantHarriman was commanding.
In their eagerness to hear the list of namescalled out the men forgot even to grumble, butscrambled back through the doorway overflowingthe long hall off of which were six rooms,devoid of furniture, which had been convertedinto barracks.
Sergeant Harriman, feeling the entire amountof pleasure to be had from the added importanceof distributing the mail—the first the platoonhad received in two months—cleared his throat,took a steadfast position and gave his attentionto the small bundle of letters which he held inhis hand.
He deftly riffled them twice without speaking.Then he separated the letters belonging to thenon-commissioned officers, the corporals, andsergeants from those addressed to the privates.The non-commissioned officers received theirletters first.
“Private Hicks,” he read off.
“Here, here I am. Back here.” PrivateHicks was all aflutter. Separated from the letterby a crowd of men, he stood on tiptoe andreached his arm far over the shoulder of theman in front of him.
“Pass it back to him? Pass it back to him?”voices impatiently asked.
“No!” Sergeant Harriman was a commander,every inch of him. “Come up and getit, Hicks.”
“Hey, snap out of it, will ya! Call off therest of the names.”
A path was made, and Hicks finally receivedthe letter.
Harriman looked up. “If you men don’tshut up, you will never get your mail!”
“Hee-ah. Gimme that lettah. That’s f’mmah sweet mammah.” Pugh wormed hissmall, skinny body through the men, fretfullycalling at those who did not make way quicklyenough. He grasped the letter. Then hestarted back, putting the letter in his pocketunopened.
“Poor old Pugh. Gets a letter and he can’tread.”
“Ain’t that a waste of stationery?”
“Why don’t you ask the captain to write an’tell your folks not to send you any more mail?Look at all the trouble you cause these mailclerks.”
Several men offered to read the letter toPugh, but he did not answer.
An hour later the first sergeant was walkingup and down in front of the billets, blowing hiswhistle. Bugle-calls were taboo.
“Shake it up, you men. Don’t you knowyou’re supposed to be ready for drill at nineo’clock?”
“Drill! I thought we come up here to fight,”voices grumbled, muttering obscene phrases directedat General Pershing, the company commander,and the first sergeant.
Men scurried out of their billets, strugglingto get on their packs and to fall in line beforethe roll was called.
“Fall in!” the little sergeant shouted, standingbefore the