The Enormous Room

E.E. Cummings

Preview: Issue 1 of 34

I - I BEGIN A PILGRIMAGE

In October, 1917, we had succeeded, my friend B. and I, in dispensing with almost three of our six months' engagement as Voluntary Drivers, Sanitary Section 21, Ambulance Norton Harjes, American Red Cross, and at the moment which subsequent experience served to capitalize, had just finished the unlovely job of cleaning and greasing (nettoyer is the proper word) the own private flivver of the chief of section, a gentleman by the convenient name of Mr. A. To borrow a characteristic-cadence from Our Great President: the lively satisfaction which we might be suspected of having derived from the accomplishment of a task so important in the saving of civilization from the clutches of Prussian tyranny was in some degree inhibited, unhappily, by a complete absence of cordial relations between the man whom fate had placed over us and ourselves. Or, to use the vulgar American idiom, B. and I and Mr. A. didn't get on well. We were in fundamental disagreement as to the attitude which we, Americans, should uphold toward the poilus in whose behalf we had volunteered assistance, Mr. A. maintaining "you boys want to keep away from those dirty Frenchmen" and "we're here to show those bastards how they do things in America," to which we answered by seizing every opportunity for fraternization. Inasmuch as eight "dirty Frenchmen" were attached to the section in various capacities (cook, provisioner, chauffeur, mechanician, etc.) and the section itself was affiliated with a branch of the French army, fraternization was easy. Now when he saw that we had not the slightest intention of adopting his ideals, Mr. A. (together with the sous-lieutenant who acted as his translator—for the chief's knowledge of the French language, obtained during several years' heroic service, consisted for the most part in "Sar var," "Sar marche," and "Deet donk moan vieux") confined his efforts to denying us the privilege of acting as drivers, on the ground that our personal appearance was a disgrace to the section. In this, I am bound to say, Mr. A. was but sustaining the tradition conceived originally by his predecessor, a Mr. P., a Harvard man, who until his departure from Vingt-et-Un succeeded in making life absolutely miserable for B. and myself. Before leaving this painful subject I beg to state that, at least as far as I was concerned, the tradition had a firm foundation in my own predisposition for uncouthness plus what Le Matin (if we remember correctly) cleverly nicknamed La Boue Héroïque.

Having accomplished the nettoyage (at which we were by this time adepts, thanks to Mr. A.'s habit of detailing us to wash any car which its driver and aide might consider too dirty a task for their own hands) we proceeded in search of a little water for personal use. B. speedily finished his ablutions. I was strolling carelessly and solo from the cook-wagon toward one of the two tents—which protestingly housed some forty huddling Americans by night—holding in my hand an historic morceau de chocolat, when a spick, not to say span, gentleman in a suspiciously quiet French uniform allowed himself to be driven up to the bureau, by two neat soldiers with tin derbies, in a Renault whose painful cleanliness shamed my recent efforts. This must be a general at least, I thought, regretting the extremely undress character of my uniform, which uniform consisted of overalls and a cigarette.

Having furtively watched the gentleman alight and receive a ceremonious welcome from the chief and the aforesaid French lieutenant who accompanied the section for translatory reasons, I hastily betook myself to one of the tents, where I found B. engaged in dragging all his belongings into a central pile of frightening proportions. He was surrounded by a group of fellow-heroes who hailed my coming with considerable enthusiasm. "Your bunky's leaving" said somebody. "Going to Paris" volunteered a man who had been trying for three months to get there. "Prison you mean" remarked a confirmed optimist whost disposition had felt the effects of French climate.

Albeit confused by the eloquence of B.'s unalterable silence, I immediately associated his present predicament with the advent of the mysterious stranger, and forthwith dashed forth, bent on demanding from one of the tin-derbies the high identity and sacred mission of this personage. I knew that with the exception of ourselves everyone in the section had been given his seven days' leave—even two men who had arrived later than we and whose turn should, consequently, have come after ours. I also knew that at the headquarters of the Ambulance, 7 rue François Premier, was Monsieur Norton, the supreme head of the Norton Harjes fraternity, who had known my father in other days. Putting two and two together I decided that this potentate had sent an emissary to Mr. A. to demand an explanation of the various and sundry insults and indignities to which I and my friend had been subjected, and more particularly to secure our long-delayed permission. Accordingly I was in high spirits as I rushed toward the bureau.

I didn't have to go far. The mysterious one, in conversation with monsieur le sous-lieutenant, met me half-way. I caught the words: "And Cummings" (the first and last time that my name was correctly pronounced by a Frenchman), "where is he?"

"Present," I said, giving a salute to which neither of them paid the slightest attention.

"Ah yes" impenetrably remarked the mysterious one in positively sanitary English. "You shall put all your baggage in the car, at once"—then, to tin-derby-the-first, who appeared in an occult manner at his master's elbow—"Go with him, get his baggage, at once."

My things were mostly in the vicinity of the cuisine, where lodged the cuisinier, mechanician, menusier, etc., who had made room for me (some ten days since) on their own initiative, thus saving me the humiliation of sleeping with nineteen Americans in a tent which was always two-thirds full of mud. Thither I led the tin-derby, who scrutinised everything with surprising interest. I threw mes affaires hastily together (including some minor accessories which I was going to leave behind, but which the t-d bade me include) and emerged with a duffle-bag under one arm and a bed-roll under the other, to encounter my excellent friends, the "dirty Frenchmen," aforesaid. They all popped out together from one door, looking rather astonished. Something by way of explanation as well as farewell was most certainly required, so I made a speech in my best French:

"Gentlemen, friends, comrades—I am going away immediately and shall be guillotined tomorrow."

—"Oh hardly guillotined I should say," remarked t-d, in a voice which froze my marrow despite my high spirits; while the cook and carpenter gaped audibly and the mechanician clutched a hopelessly smashed carburetor for support.

One of the section's voitures, a F.I.A.T., was standing ready. General Nemo sternly forbade me to approach the Renault (in which B.'s baggage was already deposited) and waved me into the F.I.A.T., bed, bed-roll and all; whereupon t-d leaped in and seated himself opposite me in a position of perfect unrelaxation, which, despite my aforesaid exultation at quitting the section in general and Mr. A. in particular, impressed me as being almost menacing. Through the front window I saw my friend drive away with t-d Number 2 and Nemo; then, having waved hasty farewell to all les Américains that I knew—three in number—and having exchanged affectionate greetings with Mr. A. (who admitted he was very sorry indeed to lose us), I experienced the jolt of the clutch—and we were off in pursuit.

Whatever may have been the forebodings inspired by t-d Number 1's attitude, they were completely annihilated by the thrilling joy which I experienced on losing sight of the accursed section and its asinine inhabitants—by the indisputable and authentic thrill of going somewhere and nowhere, under the miraculous auspices of someone and no one—of being yanked from the putrescent banalities of an official non-existence into a high and clear adventure, by a deus ex machina in a grey-blue uniform, and a couple of tin derbies. I whistled and sang and cried to my vis-à-vis: "By the way, who is yonder distinguished gentleman who has been so good as to take my friend and me on this little promenade?"—to which, between lurches of the groaning F.I.A.T., t-d replied awesomely, clutching at the window for the benefit of his equilibrium: "Monsieur le Ministre de Sureté de Noyon."

Not in the least realizing what this might mean, I grinned. A responsive grin, visiting informally the tired cheeks of my confrère, ended by frankly connecting his worthy and enormous ears which were squeezed into oblivion by the oversize casque. My eyes, jumping from those ears, lit on that helmet and noticed for the first time an emblem, a sort of flowering little explosion, or hair-switch rampant. It seemed to me very jovial and a little absurd.

"We're on our way to Noyon, then?"

T-d shrugged his shoulders.

Here the driver's hat blew off. I heard him swear, and saw the hat sailing in our wake. I jumped to my feet as the F.I.A.T. came to a sudden stop, and started for the ground—then checked my flight in mid-air and landed on the seat, completely astonished. T-d's revolver, which had hopped from its holster at my first move, slid back into its nest. The owner of the revolver was muttering something rather disagreeable. The driver (being an American of Vingt-et-Un) was backing up instead of retrieving his cap in person. My mind felt as if it had been thrown suddenly from fourth into reverse. I pondered and said nothing.

On again—faster, to make up for lost time. On the correct assumption that t-d does not understand English the driver passes the time of day through the minute window:

"For Christ's sake, Cummings, what's up?"

"You got me," I said, laughing at the delicate naiveté of the question.

"Did y' do something to get pinched?"

"Probably," I answered importantly and vaguely, feeling a new dignity.

"Well, if you didn't, maybe B—— did."

"Maybe," I countered, trying not to appear enthusiastic. As a matter of fact I was never so excited and proud. I was, to be sure, a criminal! Well, well, thank God that settled one question for good and all—no more Section Sanitaire for me! No more Mr. A. and his daily lectures on cleanliness, deportment, etc.! In spite of myself I started to sing. The driver interrupted:

"I heard you asking the tin lid something in French. Whadhesay?"

"Said that gink in the Renault is the head cop of Noyon," I answered at random.

"GOODNIGHT. Maybe we'd better ring off, or you'll get in wrong with"—he indicated t-d with a wave of his head that communicated itself to the car in a magnificent skid; and t-d's derby rang out as the skid pitched t-d the length of the F.I.A.T.

"You rang the bell then," I commented—then to t-d: "Nice car for the wounded to ride in," I politely observed. T-d answered nothing….

Noyon.

We drive straight up to something which looks unpleasantly like a feudal dungeon. The driver is now told to be somewhere at a certain time, and meanwhile to eat with the Head Cop, who may be found just around the corner—(I am doing, the translating for t-d)—and, oh yes, it seems that the Head Cop has particularly requested the pleasure of this distinguished American's company at déjeuner.

"Does he mean me?" the driver asked innocently.

"Sure," I told him.

Nothing is said of B. or me.

Now, cautiously, t-d first and I a slow next, we descend. The F.I.A.T. rumbles off, with the distinguished one's backward-glaring head poked out a yard more or less and that distinguished face so completely surrendered to mystification as to cause a large laugh on my part.

"You are hungry?"

It was the erstwhile-ferocious speaking. A criminal, I remembered, is somebody against whom everything he says and does is very cleverly made use of. After weighing the matter in my mind for some moments I decided at all cost to tell the truth, and replied:

"I could eat an elephant."

Hereupon t-d lead me to the Kitchen Itself, set me to eat upon a stool, and admonished the cook in a fierce voice:

"Give this great criminal something to eat in the name of the French
Republic!"

And for the first time in three months I tasted Food.

T-d seated himself beside me, opened a huge jack-knife, and fell to, after first removing his tin derby and loosening his belt.

One of the pleasantest memories connected with that irrevocable meal is of a large, gentle, strong woman who entered in a hurry, and seeing me cried out:

"What is it?"

"It's an American, my mother," t-d answered through fried potatoes.

"Why is he here?" the woman touched me on the shoulder, and satisfied herself that I was real.

"The good God is doubtless acquainted with the explanation," said t-d pleasantly. "Not myself being the—"

"Ah, mon pauvre" said this very beautiful sort of woman. "You are going to be a prisoner here. Everyone of the prisoners has a marraine, do you understand? I am their marraine. I love them and look after them. Well, listen: I will be your marraine, too."

I bowed and looked around for something to pledge her in. T-d was watching. My eyes fell on a huge glass of red pinard. "Yes, drink," said my captor, with a smile. I raised my huge glass.

"A la santé de ma marraine charmante!"

—This deed of gallantry quite won the cook (a smallish, agile Frenchman) who shovelled several helps of potatoes on my already empty plate. The tin derby approved also: "That's right, eat, drink, you'll need it later perhaps." And his knife guillotined another delicious hunk of white bread.

At last, sated with luxuries, I bade adieu to my marraine and allowed t-d to conduct me (I going first, as always) upstairs and into a little den whose interior boasted two mattresses, a man sitting at the table, and a newspaper in the hands of the man.

"C'est un Américain," t-d said by way of introduction. The newspaper detached itself from the man who said: "He's welcome indeed: make yourself at home, Mr. American"—and bowed himself out. My captor immediately collapsed on one mattress.

I asked permission to do the same on the other, which favor was sleepily granted. With half-shut eyes my Ego lay and pondered: the delicious meal it had just enjoyed; what was to come; the joys of being a great criminal … then, being not at all inclined to sleep, I read Le Petit Parisien quite through, even to Les Voies Urinaires.

Which reminded me—and I woke up t-d and asked: "May I visit the vespasienne?"

"Downstairs," he replied fuzzily, and readjusted his slumbers.

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