PRINGLE fell in the mud and lay still. Everybody else had fallen in the same way, for the sound of the shell as it dropped passed from a roar to a shrill staccato, a long bright needle of sound that drove through the brain. Pringle did not hear the explosion but he felt the earth tremble and knew the mud was being bucketed up in tons. A few drops of it struck him. They were warm, which put a horrible thought into his head.
Then everyone was getting up and going forward again, but Pringle remained in the mud; because, when he looked up, he saw through the mist by the flare of the Very light the bomb thrown by a trench mortar coming down like a little whale, sharp-nosed, with steering flanges at the tail. When one of those things burst, it did not dig a proper hole for itself and then chuck ruin up into the air. Instead, it squattered down against the earth, smashing flat and blowing out straight to the side chunks of steel as big as your arm.
On his first day in the trenches Second Lieutenant Walter Pringle saw a man cut in two by one of those flying fragments. This was his second day, and now fear cut his throat and let the courage out of him like hot blood. Nothing but a cold ichor remained stagnating in his arteries. He kept his lips fast shut, but a rapid pulse was beating against them from the inside and the pulse consisted of words, saying: "Walter Pringle is a coward; Pringle is a coward; Pringle of the Class of 'eighteen, shot for cowardice on the field of battle; Second Lieutenant Pringle, for conduct not becoming an officer and a gentleman…"
He got himself up on his elbow. Legs were going by him, sagging at the knees with labor in the mud. The feet were soundless in the uproar. Soundlessly they were going to their death--thousands, tens of thousands, millions to die in the war as insects die in hosts with the first frost.
A queer sound began to saw into his brain. It came from all around him like the song of bullfrogs in a marsh, but he knew that bullfrogs were not making the music.
He tried to keep remembering that when you hear the noise of a shell you are safe; it already is past you, traveling faster than sound. The big shells overhead left pulsations in the torn air behind them, strange rhythms like the self-starters of motors beginning, ending.
That was almost a comfort to Pringle compared with the rifle bullets singing high and thin, little flashes of wasp-like sound flickering past the ears and always close, close, close, whispering intimately. A kiss from one of them, anywhere between the shoulders and the hips, and you're gone.
The hole a bullet goes in by is small; it tears hell out of you when it comes through, however. Remember when you've pricked your finger with a pin or jammed a splinter under a fingernail, and then consider what the pain must be. Pringle kept considering. Most men after they first hear the whine of the bullets lose the panic ecstasy of their terror, but he knew that his own agony never would abate. Yet he had to get up; he had to go on because his father was the colonel of his regiment.
Perhaps that was where the roots of the trouble ran. A strange surgeon is better than a friend when a vital operation must be performed, and the cold eye of discipline with a stranger behind it might have cut through to the fear that was in him and let it out, like a chilly poison. Instead, the near presence of his father sustained him in a mental gesture of reaching out for comfort, for help. Cannot we learn courage like other lessons? But he had not studied long enough. He was not sufficiently prepared when he was rushed into this examination on the battlefield.
A hand caught him under the armpit and lifted. He got to his knees, to his feet. It was Lieutenant Jim Gaffney, so thin that it was no wonder he felt at ease in the midst of battle. As well shoot at the edge of a knife as at Gaffney.
"It's Big Pringle," said Gaffney. "Have they got you, Walter? Where?"
It seemed to Pringle that he was being held up by the scruff of the neck for the world to see by Very light, a poor dangling scarecrow, a shameful mud-dripping rag of humanity.
"I'm all right," said Pringle. "I just--"
"You're all right!" shouted Gaffney. Then scorn twisted his face. "Ah, hell!" he said, and went suddenly on with that wave of the attack.
Pringle tried to go after him but his feet would not stir. He made out the nature of that noise which had been sawing into his brain like the croaking of bullfrogs. Now he realized that it came from the wounded. They were all around, and some of them were screaming. Something dragged itself toward him on two arms. It had no legs.
Pringle ran forward, bogging his feet, sagging his knees at every step. He wanted to overtake Gaffney and explain; yet he knew that he never would be able to confront that face of scorn again.
Where it wasn't mud, it was up and down of trenches. The place was crazy with trenches. The ground was a junk heap, a garbage pile. There were cans everywhere, most of them untrampled. Barbed wire grew up out of the mud like horrible, thorny weeds.
There were old shoes underfoot, heels or toes sticking up, or else stamped flat on the side. All the old shoes in the world were there; and all the torn-up letters and tattered newspapers were soaking into the wet earth. In the spring a harvest of words ought to grow, loving words, and songs of international hate.
The fog was in his face, in his soul; he breathed of it, and it was like breathing smoke; and through the dreadful confusion the rifle bullets kept kissing the air close to his ear. If he could see death coming--if it would only come at him like a straight left in the boxing ring--if it were a clean, visible thing, he could stand it, but to smother in the dark of a garbage heap, a junk pile…
They had gone on forever. There were no Germans to shoot at. There was no Company K. A counter-flood of noise flowed toward them, split to both sides, washed back toward the river. It was that barrier of water to their rear, he felt, which killed his heart in him. To cross a river and then plunge right ahead into German trenches, with that little river like a knife cutting off retreat--that wasn't generalship. It was madness. He listened with dread to the pouring sounds of battle that moved past them on both sides.
"It's the counterattack, isn't it?" he yelled at a face.
"We've caught hell," yelled back Lieutenant Mays. "They've got us blocked off on both sides and in the rear."
At least there was no more marching through the mud. The men sank down into the bog. They dropped on their backs. They were all mud, anyway, so it didn't matter. Rifle bullets flickered in the air all around them, but they didn't care for that, either.
Pringle lay a little flatter than the rest, trying not to think. If every man of them were killed, still the rumor would be alive in the world to tell people at home that Walter Pringle was yellow; that Jim Gaffney had seen him turn yellow right on the battlefield. A yellow dog who lay down in the mud and let the charge go past him. Perhaps a bullet had reached the colonel. It could not kill him more surely than this news about his son.
Then the men began to drag themselves out of the mud. There was a German dugout right under them, and they were crawling down into it.
By the time Pringle got into it, the dugout seemed already full, but more men were still streaming into the long tunnel with its bunks on each side. It was all concrete. The Germans knew how to make things permanent, and safe, safe, safe. He began to breathe again; his heart commenced to beat.
The air turned incredibly foul with the steam from wet, dirty bodies, but that didn't matter because there was warmth, and Pringle realized that he had been horribly cold for hours, for eternities. He began to do what others were doing, raking off mud, but all the while he was waiting, waiting, waiting for the news of his cowardice to spread until faces should turn toward him, sick with disgust. An American, but yellow; a big American, but yellow; and his father was the colonel of the regiment.
He lay down on a bunk. The autumn cold still kept touching him with fingers of ice, but by degrees the heat of his body warmed his wet clothes, and the clothes then warmed his body.
In the dugout, the fuming cigarettes had thickened the air to a whiter smoke than the land mist which hung over Mézigny. Some were heating cans of bully beef over smokeless fires; some passed round a stock of Rhine-wine bottles that had been uncovered; a phonograph played German songs. Some worked over the wounded, particularly the German wounded. Some wandered about gaping at the pictures of girls over the bunks and reading aloud the strange German words of endearment that went with the signatures.
Ah, God, how kind and comfortable the Germans could be, with their beer and their music and their family devotions; and what an honest, hard-working people they were; and how could they want to turn butchery loose upon the world? Pringle would not hate them for it. Hatred was immoral. Shorty Waters was holding up the head of a wounded German, tilting a bottle of wine at his lips. The wine spilled over the fellow's throat. Waters took the bottle away. He laughed, and the German laughed.
They made a nice picture together; Pringle wanted the whole world to be filled with brothers and brotherhood. Was there not one Bach for all the world? Was there not one Shakespeare? Had not the Germans put up a statue to "Unser Shakespeare"? These tokens of a common humanity of mind and spirit deepened the ache in Pringle's sick heart, as he waited and waited.
Then, suddenly, the colonel was upon him. He was there with Major Carlton and Captain Reeves. Pringle got up. His father laid a hand on his shoulder and bristled his short gray mustache with a smile. The major and the captain moved away from this family scene.
"Muddy business, Walter, wasn't it?" asked the colonel. Then: "What's the matter? Have you been nicked somewhere? Are you sick?"
The lieutenant smiled a little. He could feel the smile crinkle the drying mud on his face. "I'm sick," he said, and waited again. The whole thing had to come out, one time or another. Then he saw truth strike like a shadow across the eyes of the colonel.
It was not until then that he saw his father's left arm was tied up in a sling. The colonel's eyes tried to hold to the face of his son, but they slipped and dodged away, staring into far corners of this wretched world.
"I'll try to see you later," he said. "I'll try…" Then he was off through the stifling mist.
Pringle's knees gave way beneath him, and he had to lie down on the bunk again. Without looking about him, he could learn from random words the history of their attack and their present situation. The attack had proceeded so swiftly because the colonel had seized on the best possible moment. But by a devil of bad luck under the fog the Germans had an unreported reserve close the point of attack. It was that reserve which had smashed both wings of the attack.
The whole ground on both sides and behind what was left of the regiment was occupied by German troops. Now, in the thick of the land mist, for the moment contact was lost with the enemy. Colonel Pringle had some four hundred men lodged in the throat of the salient, and when they were found, the Germans would swallow them. It was time to surrender; but to those stupid brutes canned beef seemed more important than the sweetness of life. They went on cooking, eating, endlessly.
Pringle tried to keep them out of his mind but one sound continually tore open his heart. It came from a man who had been shot through the hand. Sometimes he endured for whole minutes, with grinding teeth; then the groans came, and last the horrible noise of sobbing.
The colonel's voice brought Pringle to his feet again. His father said: "I've found a way out for you--you're going to go back to our lines. You can find the beginning of the communication trench just outside. You follow the general line of it, zigzags and all, and never leave it, because it winds up right at the edge of the Mézigny--and once in the water you're as good as home. You can swim."
"But if they see me on the way down the trench?"
"You'll have a German uniform on. We'll take one out of the dugout."
"So that I'll be shot as a spy if they catch--"
"Don't you see that they won't catch you?" said the colonel. "You can speak a little German. You know how to swear in it, at least. If you're challenged, start cursing and swagger your way through. Only one of all these men can live; I choose that it should be my son."
Pringle felt himself choking.
"You'll go back to our lines," said the colonel. "The river twists back into them. You'll report to General Bailey that we're established here in the throat of the salient and that if he counterattacks, we'll take them with our fire from behind. Tell him that I am rigging whole lines of machine guns. As a matter of fact, I'm starting to entrench now. Tell him that, if he attacks, he's to send up a cluster of five Very lights; if I don't see the signal, at dawn I attack the Germans anyway. You understand?"
"Can you pick me out like this?" asked Pringle, trembling with hope. "Can you give me my life like this? Won't it be held against you?"
The colonel paused. Then he said: "I'm going to put the proposition to the regiment in very stark terms. When I ask for a volunteer to carry the message, you can be sure there'll be no sudden answer. I want you to shout at once. Do you see, Walter? I'll put it in such a way that you'll seem a hero."
Pringle discovered suddenly that he was alone, for two steps through the mist had turned the colonel into a distant, wavering figure of black through the white, foul smother of the dugout. Now some loudly shouted orders brought the soldiers to attention. The colonel's deep voice seemed to Pringle as big as drum and bugle combined.
"We are stuck here like a fish bone in the throat of the Germans. If our friends across the Mézigny knew we were here, they'd make the Germans try to swallow--and choke in the process. Our job, now, is to let General Bailey know where we're located. If we get one man across the trenches and over the river, I think another attack would be launched, to help us and to use us. Otherwise, when the day comes, we'll be found and stamped out by the heavy artillery.
"The only way to get a messenger through the lines and across the river is to put a German uniform on him. He ought to be able to speak a little German, to help him through a pinch. We don't want a man who's depressed by the knowledge that he's carrying the lives of four hundred men with him; we want a fellow who'll be inspired by the thought."
It seemed to Pringle that all the days of his American life had been spent in sunshine, with green grass underfoot and drowsy summer hummings of contentment in the air. It seemed to him that all the rest must be thinking of their country in the same way, and that every man in the dugout must realize that the colonel was opening a door to safety out of this hell of mud and fog.
Then he heard the colonel saying: "Of course a man caught in a German uniform will be shot out of hand as a spy. I don't want to minimize the other dangers, but I'm asking for volunteers."
He stopped. And Pringle's heart stopped at the same time. He wanted to shout out, but his own eagerness filled his throat like a gag. A second or two went by.
Then Pringle's voice came to him and he sang out. Many heads turned. A space opened before him. He heard voices saying, "Who is it?" and then the unmistakable nasal whine of Jim Gaffney exclaiming, "It's Pringle! Pringle, by God!"
They were making a hero of him. They didn't understand--because the colonel had not explained to them how easily the thing could be done. Shame roused up suddenly in Pringle as he confronted his father. Major Burnet was saying: "We can't allow this. You can't let your boy go, sir."
He heard that, but he was hardly aware of words or of anything about him as he was helped out of his uniform and into German clothes. The dying life which fear had been gnawing at the roots was returning to him. A mighty river of hope was beginning, a current which seemed already to be bearing him home.
Then he was shaking hands. He saw eyes widened with admiration and fear of what lay before him. Then his father was holding both his hands, and now he was at the entrance of the dugout.
And then there was the mist, the fluttering nightmare battle lights, and the uncertain footing where he began to stumble the moment he took a step. He was remembering his father's face and eyes which in the moment of parting had seemed to shine with pity, with grief, and in farewell.
He found the zigzag communication trench and followed it. The voices of the battle came and went in great flooding pulses, with moments when the uproar of the great guns trampled all thought from his mind, and again pauses of emptiness during which he was aware of the smaller noises. In those pauses he heard the thin whining of airplanes as they drew little patterns of complaint in the air.
It seemed strange that those tribes of the air should be divided against one another instead of combining in a splendid fury against all the earth dwellers. He knew the song of the three-inch shells and the handstroke of air when they passed. But always the incredibly swift, short whistlings of the rifle bullets ran through his consciousness like the dots and dashes of a telegraphic code, spelling in a thousand ways a single word. But behind and around all these sounds he was conscious of one constant utterance, like the mournful lowing of cattle far off. He refused to put his mind on that sound, because he knew it was the lament of the wounded.
Something flowed through the mist along the ground. It poured like water. He made out the helmets of a thick column of Germans pouring up the communication trench toward the front. Their feet made no sound. They were a column of ghosts already walking to death.
The full sickness of fear returned upon Pringle. He sank into the mud and remained there, hardly breathing. Rain came down with a crash. It washed the manhood out of him. It beat him like a sodden rag into the mud.
When he pulled himself to his feet again, his brain was spinning. He had forgotten in what direction he should be going. Along the communication trench--but which way?
The horizon all around offered a circle of smoky glares. There is no up or down, no north or south in hell.
He almost lurched against a tree trunk. It turned into a solid figure with a rifle at the ready, nearly touching his breast. A German voice was saying something angrily, blurred in the rain.
The prepared words came yelling out of the throat of Pringle. "Verdammter Schwarzkopf!" he shouted, and knocked the rifle aside.
[* Verdammter Schwarzkopf. Damned Hun. Literally: "damned black-head." Schwarzkopf alludes to the black steel helmet worn by German soldiers during the First World War.]
He strode on. Fear pierced his side like a thrusting bayonet, but at the edge of his consciousness, he seemed to be aware of the German standing at attention by way of apology. Then he was alone again except for what he was stumbling over. Sometimes the earth grew teeth that tore and cut at his boots. Sometimes it was sloshing mud. Sometimes it was lumped with soft forms.
The battle noise, all at once, drew far away and became dim, so that Pringle felt he must be fainting. But it was only one of those pauses in the racing heartbeats of a fight.
Out of the fog he heard a voice scream: "Put me out of it! I can't stand it any more! Kill me, will you? Put me out of the pain--oh, my God!"
And a deep German voice full of a father's gentleness said, "Sei ruhig, sei ruhig, mein Kind!"
[* Be still, be still, my child.]
Pringle fled from the voices.
Here the mud underfoot turned into something knee-deep and cold. He found that he was standing in running water and knew that he had reached the Mézigny. He was on the verge of safety.
He pulled off clothes and shoes, lunged forward, and the water received him with dark, cold arms. He needed only to float. The current was floating him toward his country. Thereafter, he never would look at a stream, he never would hear the music of running water without a sense of gigantic deliverance.
Then a white eye opened in the sky above him. A magnesium light was dropping slowly down under its parachute. Its glare turned the river and its bank to silver, obscurely marked by tangles of ink-black shadows.
Pringle saw this as he dived. Under the water he kept swimming slowly, holding his breath until his lungs burned and were bursting. When he rose to the surface, the brightness of the magnesium light was intensified. Then something pierced his leg; a needle-thrust, a hammer-blow, and after that numbness from the hip down.
He swam on, the left leg a senseless weight to drag.
The glaring face of the river was cut with dark whip-strokes. Little wasp sounds flocked about his head. That was a machine gun feeling its way to find him.
He dived again, endowed with extra strength, for the ghost which had haunted him now dissolved into a silly little man-made scarecrow. This was the whole terror of the battlefield, and the bullet-stroke was hardly more, actually, than the ache of a bad tooth.
The thought was like fresh air in his lungs. It had been, after all, mere excess of expectation, like that brief moment of coldheartedness which comes just before a boxing bout commences; and as the first blow dissolves that nervous apprehension, so the bullet had killed the fear in Pringle.
Darkness came over the river like a mercy. He swam confidently on. He wanted to shout his good news. He wanted to print it in great red letters across the sky--to tell everyone that fear is only a fake giant.
The current was swinging him toward the left bank, so that he realized he was rounding the bend of the Mézigny. He was, in fact, already at the verge of the American lines when his reaching hand found sharp teeth submerged just under the surface of the water. He had struck a barbed-wire obstacle in the stream.
Well, it would cost him merely another kind of pain to cross it. He laid out his body with the left side down and so turned himself slowly across the uppermost edge of the wire. Twenty of its teeth entered him, cut, tore, and then he was across on the far side with his whole body on fire with the new pain.
But what was the pain of the body compared with the wounding of a man's pride? Now he knew that his spirit would be complete to the end of his days.
He had not even thought of the loss of blood until he tried to drag himself from the water with arms that refused to bear his weight. Then sudden hands were on him.
"Look at his damned Boche tryin' to sneak through," said a voice.
"Get me to an officer," said Pringle. "Get me to him fast before I faint."
For life, now, narrowed to a single bright thread to which he had to cling with desperate craft. Too strong an effort would break the thread, and the message that might save his father never would be spoken. He understood perfectly, now, the pity, the grief and the farewell in the eyes of Colonel Pringle. He had lied with a good, manly roundness to his son, sending him out to be shot down, certainly, but in such a way that his memory would live for his family and his friends like that of a hero.
But heroism isn't a question of brute courage. It's merely a matter of knowledge. What we know, we don't fear, and Pringle had looked into the whole mystery, face to face.
He was lying on a board in a trench, now. Consciousness widened and showed him the face, the shoulder-markings of the young captain who leaned over him.
"Get word to General Bailey." Pringle struggled to make each word firm and clear. "Lieutenant Pringle reporting from Colonel Pringle--the colonel has four hundred men entrenched, over there. If the general hits out and starts the Germans backing up, they'll back into a wall of fire. They'll be cleaned up. If the general doesn't attack, Colonel Pringle reports that he'll attack on his own, at dawn. If the general attacks, will he please fire five Very lights in a cluster…"
He could not remember, afterward, whether he had spoken those last words or only thought them.
Out of a hazy dream, burning pain brought him back to consciousness, and he heard a voice yelling: "Look out how you handle him. Can't you see he's shot to hell?"
But the pain of the body merely warmed his inner soul.
"Five Very lights in a cluster, if there is to be an attack," he said emphatically.
Something shouted in Pringle's ear, afterward. Something of "Very lights" touched the inward nerve of his being and opened his eyes, and he saw, high above him in the night, lights opening like phosphorescent flowers in a sea of black. He counted one, two, three, four, five in that shining cluster.
"Ah, that's good!"
He fought to cling to consciousness. It came and went, however, like cloud shadows across lovely daylight hills.
He was in a dressing station. The uproar of a thundering sea had withdrawn to a distance; no, it was battle, not the crashing of breakers. Two men in blood-splashed white were doing things to him, and every touch of their hands burned him with agony.
"What do you think?" he asked them.
"You're going to have your chance. What in hell did the bastards do to you?"
"They're not bastards," said Pringle. He spoke softly, saving his breath, for one great exhalation would sweep away his soul and make it a part of that dark wind which blows between the stars. "They're like us--just the same. The way I see it, war is a game. It's a sport. We shouldn't fight Germans because we hate them, but because in the game we're on the other side. Germans. Music, singing, black radishes and beer--you can't hate all that." Then he said, "Can I give a message?"
The doctor was leaving him. "Garner!" he called. "Come here, Garner!"
A little man stood by the cot with a pencil ready above a notebook.
"To Colonel Pringle, if he lives through the attack, from Lieutenant Pringle. Walter Pringle. Tell him, if I die, that I understood."
"He'll know what I mean."
"All right. Good luck, Lieutenant," said Garner, turning away.
"I've had my luck," said Pringle, as the shadow poured over him again.
When he came to consciousness again, breathing was hard.
A voice was saying: "Nobody knows how. Left leg useless. Body cut to hell. But he got through. How? Nobody knows how a hero does his stuff. Anyway, he's the reason that salient was smashed flat this morning. They got to Colonel Pringle in the throat of it. He still had two hundred men with him; they'll get decorations. One of the damnedest things in the whole war."
"Is this poor devil going to die?" asked a second voice.
"I don't know. He's got the blue in his face."
It doesn't matter thought Pringle.
The cloud came over him again, with the softness of perfect sleep.