Soldiers' Pay

William Faulkner

Preview: Issue 1 of 1

"The hushèd plaint of wind in stricken trees Shivers the grass in path and lane And Grief and Time are tideless golden seas— Hush, hush! He's home again."

Chapter I

I

Achilles — Did you shave this morning, Cadet?

Mercury — Yes, Sir.

Achilles — What with, Cadet?

Mercury — Issue, Sir.

Achilles — Carry on, Cadet.

—Old Play (about 19—?)

Lowe, Julian, number——, late a Flying Cadet, Umptieth Squadron, Air Service, known as "One Wing" by the other embryonic aces of his flight, regarded the world with a yellow and disgruntled eye. He suffered the same jaundice that many a more booted one than he did, from Flight Commanders through Generals to the ambrosial single-barred (not to mention that inexplicable beast of the field which the French so beautifully call an aspiring aviator); they had stopped the war on him.

So he sat in a smouldering of disgusted sorrow, not even enjoying his Pullman prerogatives, spinning on his thumb his hat with its accursed white band.

"Had your nose in the wind, hey, buddy?" said Yaphank, going home and smelling to high heaven of bad whisky.

"Ah, go to hell," he returned sourly and Yaphank doffed his tortured hat.

"Why, sure, General—or should I of said Lootenant? Excuse me, madam, I got gassed doing k.p. and my sight ain't been the same since. On to Berlin! Yeh, sure, we're on to Berlin. I'm on to you, Berlin. I got your number. Number no thousand no hundred and naughty naught Private (very private) Joe Gilligan, late for parade, late for fatigue, late for breakfast when breakfast is late. The statue of liberty ain't never seen me, and if she do, she'll have to 'bout face."

Cadet Lowe raised a sophisticated eye. "Say, what-cher drinking, anyway?"

"Brother, I dunno. Fellow that makes it was gave a Congressional medal last Chuesday because he has got a plan to stop the war. Enlist all the Dutchmen in our army and make 'em drink so much of his stuff a day for forty days, see? Ruin any war. Get the idea?"

"I'll say. Won't know whether it's a war or a dance, huh?"

"Sure, they can tell. The women will all be dancing. Listen, I had a swell jane and she said, 'for Christ's sake, you can't dance.' And I said, 'like hell I can't.' And we was dancing and she said, 'what are you, anyways?' And I says, 'what do you wanta know for? I can dance as well as any general or major or even a sergeant, because I just win four hundred in a poker game,' and she said, 'Oh, you did?' and I said, 'sure, stick with me, kid,' and she said, 'where is it?' Only I wouldn't show it to her and then this fellow come up to her and said, 'are you dancing this one?' And she said, 'sure, I am. This bird don't dance.' Well, he was a sergeant, the biggest one I ever seen. Say, he was like that fellow in Arkansaw that had some trouble with a nigger and a friend said to him, 'well, I hear you killed a nigger yesterday.' And he said, 'yes, weighed two hundred pounds.' Like a bear." He took the lurching of the train limberly and Cadet Lowe said, "For Christ's sake."

"Sure," agreed the other. "She won't hurt you; though. I done tried it. My dog won't drink none of it of course, but then he got bad ways hanging around Brigade H.Q. He's the one trophy of the war I got: something that wasn't never bawled out by a shavetail for not saluting. Say, would you kindly like to take a little something to keep off the sumniferous dews of this goddam country? The honour is all mine and you won't mind it much after the first two drinks. Makes me homesick: like a garage. Ever work in a garage?"

Sitting on the floor between two seats was Yaphank's travelling companion, trying to ignite a splayed and sodden cigar. Like devastated France, thought Cadet Lowe, swimming his memory through the adenoidal reminiscences of Captain Bleyth, an R.A.F. pilot delegated to temporarily reinforce their democracy.

"Why, poor soldier," said his friend, tearfully, "all alone in no man's land and no matches. Ain't war hell? I ask you." He tried to push the other over with his leg, then he fell to kicking him, slowly. "Move over, you ancient mariner. Move over, you goddam bastard. Alas, poor Jerks or something (I seen that in a play, see? Good line) come on, come on; here's General Pershing come to have a drink with the poor soldiers." He addressed Cadet Lowe. "Look at him: ain't he sodden in depravity?"

"Battle of Coonyak," the man on the floor muttered. "Ten men killed. Maybe fifteen. Maybe hundred. Poor children at home saying 'Alice, where art thou?'"

"Yeh, Alice. Where in hell are you? That other bottle. What'n'ell have you done with it? Keeping it to swim in when you get home?"

The man on the floor weeping said: "You wrong me as ever man wronged. Accuse me of hiding mortgage on house? Then take this soul and body; take all. Ravish me, big boy."

"Ravish a bottle of vinegar juice out of you, anyway," the other muttered, busy beneath the seat. He rose triumphant, clutching a fresh bottle. "Hark! the sound of battle and the laughing horses draws near. But shall they dull this poor unworthy head? No! But I would like to of seen one of them laughing horses. Must of been lady horses all together. Your extreme highness"—with ceremony, extending the bottle—"will you be kind enough to kindly condescend to honour these kind but unworthy strangers in a foreign land?"

Cadet Lowe accepted the bottle, drank briefly, gagged and spat his drink. The other supporting him massaged his back. "Come on, come on, they don't nothing taste that bad." Kindly cupping Lowe's opposite shoulder in his palm he forced the bottle mouthward again. Lowe released the bottie, defending himself. "Try again. I got you. Drink it, now."

"Jesus Christ," said Cadet Lowe, averting his head.

Passengers were interested and Yaphank soothed him. "Now, now. They won't nothing hurt you. You are among friends. Us soldiers got to stick together in a foreign country like this. Come on, drink her down. She ain't worth nothing to no one, spit on his legs like that.

"Hell, man, I can't drink it."

"Why, sure you can. Listen: think of flowers. Think of your poor grey-haired mother hanging on the front gate and sobbing her grey-haired heart out. Listen, think of having to go to work again when you get home. Ain't war hell? I would of been a corporal at least, if she had just hung on another year."

"Hell, I can't."

"Why, you got to," his new friend told him kindly, pushing the bottle suddenly in his mouth and tilting it. To be flooded or to swallow were his choices so he drank and retained it. His belly rose and hung, then sank reluctant.

"There now, wasn't so bad, was it? Remember, this hurts me to see my good licker going more than it does you. But she do kind of smack of gasoline, don't she?"

Cadet Lowe's outraged stomach heaved at its muscular moorings like a captive balloon. He gaped and his vitals coiled coldly in a passionate ecstasy. His friend again thrust the bottle in his mouth.

"Drink, quick! You got to protect your investment, you know."

His private parts, flooded, washed back to his gulping and a sweet fire ran through him, and the Pullman conductor came and regarded them in helpless disgust.

"Ten—shun," said Yaphank, springing to his feet. "Beware of officers! Rise, men, and salute the admiral here." He took the conductor's hand and held it. "Boys, this man commanded the navy," he said. "When the enemy tried to capture Coney Island he was there. Or somewhere between there and Chicago, anyway, wasn't you, Colonel?"

"Look out, men, don't do that." But Yaphank had already kissed his hand.

"Now, run along, Sergeant. And don't come back until dinner is ready."

"Listen, you must stop this. You will ruin my train."

"Bless your heart, Captain, your train couldn't be no safer with us if it was your own daughter." The man sitting on the floor moved and Yaphank cursed him. "Sit still, can't you? Say, this. fellow thinks it's night. Suppose you have your hired man bed him down? He's just in the way here."

The conductor, deciding Lowe was the sober one, addressed him.

"For God's sake, soldier, can't you do something with them?"

"Sure," said Cadet Lowe. "You run along; I'll look after them. They're all right."

"Well, do something with them. I can't bring a train into Chicago with the whole army drunk on it. My God, Sherman was sure right."

Yaphank stared at him quietly. Then he turned to his companions. "Men," he said solemnly, "he don't want us here. And this is the reward we get for giving our flesh and blood to our country's need. Yes, sir, he don't want us here; he begrudges us riding on his train, even. Say, suppose we hadn't sprang to the nation's call, do you know what kind of a train you'd have? A train full of Germans. A train full of folks eating sausage and drinking beer, all going to Milwaukee, that's what you'd have."

"Couldn't be worse than a train full of you fellows not knowing where you're going," the conductor replied.

"All right," Yaphank answered. "If that's the way you feel, we'll get off your goddam train. Do you think this is the only train in the world?"

"No, no," the conductor said hastily, "not at all. I don't want you to get off. I just want you to straighten up and not disturb the other passengers."

The sitting man lurched clumsily and Cadet Lowe met interested stares.

"No," said Yaphank, "no! You have refused the hospitality of your train to the saviours of your country. We could have expected better treatment than this in Germany, even in Texas." He turned to Lowe. "Men, we will get off his train at the next station. Hey, General?"

"My God," repeated the conductor. "If we ever have another peace I don't know what the railroads will do. I thought war was bad enough, but my God."

"Run along," Yaphank told him, "run along. You probably won't stop for us, so I guess we'll have to jump off. Gratitude! Where is gratitude, when trains won't stop to let poor soldiers off? I know what it means. They'll fill trains with poor soldiers and run 'em off into the Pacific Ocean. Won't have to feed 'em anymore. Poor soldiers? Woodrow, you wouldn't of treated me like this."

"Hey, what you doing?" But the man ignored him, tugging the window up and dragging a cheap paper suitcase across his companion's knees. Before either Lowe or the conductor could raise a hand he had pushed the suitcase out the window. "All out, men!"

His sodden companion heaved clawing from the floor. "Hey! That was mine you throwed out?"

"Well, ain't you going to get off with us? We are going to throw 'em all off, and when she slows down we'll jump ourselves. "

"But you throwed mine off first," the other said.

"Why, sure. I was saving you the trouble, see? Now don't you feel bad about it; you can throw mine off if you want, and then Pershing here, and the admiral can throw each other's off the same way. You got a bag, ain't you?" he asked the conductor. "Get yours, quick, so we won't have so damn far to walk."

"Listen, soldiers," said the conductor, and Cadet Lowe, thinking of Elba, thinking of his coiling guts and a slow alcoholic fire in him, remarked the splayed official gold breaking the man's cap. New York swam flatly past; Buffalo was imminent, and sunset.

"Listen, soldiers," repeated the conductor. "I got a son in France. Sixth Marines he is. His mother ain't heard from him since October. I'll do anything for you boys, see, but for God's sake act decent."

"No," replied the man, "you have refused us hospitality, so we get off. When does the train stop? Or have we got to jump?"

"No, no, you boys sit here. Sit here and behave and you'll be all right. No need to get off."

He moved swaying down the aisle and the sodden one removed his devastated cigar. "You throwed my suitcase out," he repeated. .

Yaphank took Cadet Lowe's arm. "Listen. Wouldn't that discourage you? God knows, I'm trying to help the fellow get a start in life, and what do I get? One complaint after another." He addressed his friend again. "Why, sure, I throwed your suitcase off. Whatcher wanta do? wait till we get to Buffalo and pay a quarter to have it took off for you?"

"But you throwed my suitcase out," said the other again.

"All right, I did. Whatcher going to do about it?"

The other pawed himself erect, clinging to the window, and fell heavily over Lowe's feet. "For Christ's sake," his companion said, thrusting him into his seat, "watch whatcher doing."

"Get off," the man mumbled wetly.

"Huh?"

"Get off, too," he explained, trying to rise again. He got on to his legs and lurching, bumping and sliding about the open window he thrust his head through it. Cadet Lowe caught him by the brief skirt of his blouse.

"Here, here, come back, you damn fool. You can't do that."

"Why, sure he can," contradicted Yaphank, "let him jump off if he wants. He ain't only going to Buffalo, anyways."

"Hell, he'll kill himself."

"My God," repeated the conductor, returning at a heavy gallop. He leaned across Lowe's shoulder and caught the man's leg. The man, with his head and torso through the window, swayed lax and sodden as a meal sack. Yaphank pushed Lowe aside and tried to break the conductor's grip on the other's leg.

"Let him be. I don't believe he'll jump."

"But, good God, I can't take any chances. Look out, look out, soldier! Pull him back there!"

"Oh, for Christ's sake, let him go," said Lowe, giving up.

"Sure," the other amended, "let him jump. I'd kind of like to see him do it, since he suggested it himself. Besides, he ain't the kind for young fellows like us to associate with. Good riddance. Let's help him off," he added, shoving at the man's lumpy body. The would-be suicide's hat whipped from his head and, the wind temporarily clearing his brain, he fought to draw himself in. He had changed his mind. His companion resisted, kindly.

"Come on, come on. Don't lose your nerve now. G'wan and jump."

"Help!" the man shrieked into the vain wind and "help!" the conductor chorused, clinging to him, and two alarmed passengers and the porter came to his assistance. They overcame Yaphank and drew the now thoroughly alarmed man into the car. The conductor slammed shut the window.

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