The Best Continental Short Stories of 1924-1925/Warming Up
IN war-time one has to accept a very mixed and dubious society, for there is no way of picking and choosing. You are thrown pellmell among old, wornout clothes and messmates, and you must do your best with all of them. You can cut up the old clothes and use them over again, but as for the comrades, you must trim yourself to fit them. And usually in so doing you must use large shears. The soldiers’ shoes are big, rather than small, and the same is often true of the comradely hearts which one encounters, though this fact is not always perceived. As you grow accustomed to your new life, you are quite willing to borrow a louse now and then, to be returned with interest. Grief is handed about from one man to another, as an ardent woman of the camp-fire allows herself to be infested with insects by any one, without a protest. Should a choice and fine Sunday-school word be let fall in the conversation, this pearl always drops before some swine who rolls it about in his mouth with joy, merely because it is a Sunday-school word. When it ceases to be bandied about, every one feels, as it were, the pricking of a thorn under his nails or in his heart, and sorrow gnaws again at every soul. It isn’t our fault, old fellow, but you see we can hardly celebrate Sundays very well. Sundays and everything that goes with them, and we well know why.
I have to smile when I chance to remember one of my war comrades. It isn’t you, Pancrace, forest warden of the village near Kladno—you, who so beautifully proved in your own person the truth that a forest warden is best made from a poacher! Nor am I thinking of other comrades, who equally, incarnated many other truths. The comrade I mean incarnated a sort of deception, or lie, which was very agreeable, and which did us all much good. I profess—even if the profession count against me —a faithful and loyal friendship for that comrade, and I don’t hesitate to pronounce and recognize his name. But you must hear me pronounce it. I shall not utter it from the hollow of my tongue, nor with honeyed lips, but with my teeth, my throat and with contracted palate, so that it may seem the name of a good, rough hand who makes everything ring around him wherever he goes. Here it is—listen: “War-r-ming up, my fine fellows!” What a pity you didn’t hear! My palate is still numb, and the swelling there goes clear to my throat!
Rough times have happened. You were aroused right after midnight, you opened your eyes with a groan, the shadows jostled around you as a black ram might do, punching you in the eye with heavy blows, as soon as you came out of the dugout. In the night shadows, the rain crackled as if thousands of porcupines were devouring millions of cockroaches. You force your jaws open in a painful yawn, and a shiver runs over your bones, which shake like gravel in a bag. God and the world were great, there in the far-away land, and, somewhere in the vast world dogs were asleep in their kennels, the cattle were drowsing near the manger in the warm stable, and the forest guard was sheltering himself from the rain below some gable end, his hands buried in his great sleeves. Or, if he was a man of dire destiny, a doer of shady deeds—if he had killed his father that night, for example—that man was fleeing beneath the flood of rain, through little obscure lanes, or across the fields. Whatever the man, he was soothed by a feverish satisfaction, and warmed by whatever he had done, was out on this rainy night on his own affairs. We poor chaps were not at all out on our own affairs. We were merely like chalk-marks, quickly erased by one stroke of the sponge. We were signed and sealed to others, we were at the mercy of other wills, we were destroyed by other wills.
We have just been awakened so that we may fully understand our nullity, and just when we wanted to sleep to forget everything. This day, whose sorrow exists in us, has begun too soon. The thing which was awaiting us was a four hours’ escalade of the rude sides of the mountain, a panting charge of the hostile trenches, a grim endurance of the sweat, the rain and the lice, and a painful effort to keep our ears pricked up at certain sounds which make the air swell as goose-flesh thickens human skin.
In spite of it all, we were still men. But what sort of men! Worn down almost to the bone—no! having nothing but bones, and creaking and shivering at every joint. Somewhere in the middle part of us there was a dilapidated stomach which painted for itself in lively colors the fine mouthfuls swallowed long ago, in the calm quiet of the days when there was peace. While the frozen void which we felt within us made us yawn, and while this yawn was the only expression of our distress, something brighter than the shadows came to us from the kitchen to form a warm, dry corner in the midst of the glacial rain. We beheld a vapor all made of golden beads, a cloud in which a gentle smile hid itself away as in a beard, and we could approach, with our tin plates and cups in our hands. We knew that we were not wholly forgotten, and we received our portion of the food that saved us. We were no longer obliged to content ourselves with yawns, we could at last speak, and our voices were like the voices of men to whom some good fortune has happened. We were now really men again, men who had just arisen, and knew how to salute gayly the oncoming day.
“Hi, boys, warming up must be in it today, that crazy mess of a cook has stuck in the wrong ladle!”
And then the smiling eyes and smiling chins plunge, as if intoxicated, into the vapor rising from the tin plates, and a noise is heard like that made when the fire is stirred beneath a boiler and the pistons begin to move. It seems as if a solid and vigorous squeeze, as of a hearty handgrip, enters our very beings, and we feel the warming up at work inside us, as a mason works busily from below to brace a tottering wall. Every bit of this good feeling comes from our stomachs, and our hearts hasten to share in it. When we again plunge out into the rain, we work our jaws, thinking that now we can hold our own. Some one is calling Pancrace. “Hey, old fellow, you always have to be looked for. It takes a lever to pry you loose!” And then, from some corner off in the shadows, his voice reaches us. “Maybe it wouldn’t split your throat if you called me Mister Pancrace!”
The house of Pancrace, in fact, was in a state of repair. While we were setting out, trudging along on our way and seeking it among the rocks with our iron-tipped staves. Pancrace suddenly bobs up near me and sighs, “If only my two gals could see their poor old father!” He was speaking of his wife and daughter, and chose a coarser and a commoner word to express what would have choked him to put into kindly, lovable phrasing.
Sometimes it happened that one happened to be at the right place at the right time, and could hold out his tin canteen. Now, a full canteen is no mere chance or commonplace acquaintance. You don’t drink that down at a gulp, and standing up. The full canteen will be a comrade for a time, who makes his presence felt and who attracts attention. It’s a rough joker, a frightful tease and, if I had to paint its portrait. I’d put in the joyous eyes of a vagabond, and a very bristly chin, and I’d expect to have people recognize, from this picture, a good old character ready to break into poetry at a moment’s notice.
So, one day, we were holding out our canteens, myself and our sergeant. We were at the division kitchen which had been installed in position, and when we came back down the mountain paths the world looked lovely to us, full ripe for peace, and we signed peace with Italy that very day. It was after a frightful night. We had climbed high up, in the stormy darkness, but now not a shot was heard, and breathless silence ruled, as if everything were rooted to its place, as if every soul had covered his mouth with his hand and were lying stretched out on the ground, chin in hand, to watch the passing of the summer of St. Martin. From time to time we halted, where we found two rocks face to face. We had thus each one a seat, the sergeant and I, and we took advantage of every seat we found.
Above our canteens we exchanged smiles, we tipped back our heads, we drank generous mouthfuls, we praised the merchandise, we smiled again at each other, and we greedily savored the silence about us. It was after the fourth mouthful, I believe, that the silence began to weigh heavily upon the sergeant.
“You see, old chap, those fellows seem to have had about enough of it.”
His voice and smile emerged from his beard as from a forest. For a moment he looked about without speaking, and then abruptly resumed, as one throws a few twigs on a fire to save it from going completely out, “Perhaps you didn’t hear about it. They were talking about it at the kitchen. A man who is candidate for section commander arrived with the news.” Certainly nothing like that had been heard of at the kitchen. That illy shaven fellow, you know—the spirit of warming up, was there, and that spirit has no trouble in finding followers! For that spirit, it was great fun to invent a thousand candidates like the one that was supposed to have brought the great news!
Now it was a fine autumnal day, one could look far over the country from where we were, and the mountains below us seemed like our great-grandmothers’ shawls, and the eddying clouds covered all.
“Well, it must happen, one day or another, don’t you think? Why, yes! We’ll put them—come, hurry up and boil the knedliky (balls of wheat flour, cooked in water—a very popular dish in Czechoslovakia) with the sauerkraut! What do you say? Shall we embark at Taravisio or Krainburg? For my part, I think it will be at Taravisio.”
“Yes, if the train isn’t kept waiting here too long.”
We had just set out again. The sergeant stopped when I uttered this unfortunate remark, and drew his finger across my forehead. “You must arrange all that when you get home. Do you hear even a single shot? No, you hear nothing. I tell you again, that candidate arrived with the news—— See there! There are two fine little easy chairs for us, and just pipe that little cascade close by!”
This time we exchanged, over our canteens, a still more intoxicated smile, for beside us a mountain cascade, loveliest of the lovely, was merrily laughing on its way. For a moment, the universe ceased to be insane, and if we two were mad, we were quite the opposite of everything else. What we had heard, though, was enough to make one mad. I no longer cut the sergeant short, and in spite of myself I abandoned my spirit to a wave of beatitude which flowed toward us from the peaceful autumnal sun. The sergeant was sitting facing me, his look become soft and gentle, and from his beard, as from a forest, a little elf seemed to escape, waving its cap joyously and crying, “Peacel Peace! Peace!”
Below, there among the hills, ran the thin white ribbon traced by the road, and on the road were moving outlines like those one sees in nurseries.
“When I get home, I say, I shall always be seeing this cascade and this road, but I shall never be able to tell any one how beautiful it was when peace came marching down the road, with the cascade running to meet her.”
“Ah, you are right. It is inexpressible. It is—— Oh, thunder! Come along, let’s join our comrades! They surely know more than we do about it!”
We took the road at a good pace. Our thoughts helped our legs along. We ceased to halt when we reached those little rocky seats. As we went along, we lifted our canteens to our lips. Whenever we met any soldiers, the sergeant threw to them, as we hastened by, his radiant vision of peace.
“Look that way, do you see?” he cried, suddenly, pointing to something well above us. “What did I tell you? Look, look, there it is, sure enough, the white flag!”
I could see nothing but what seemed whitish smoke, but perhaps it was really the white flag.
“Jesus and Mary, old fellow, there it is, there it is!”
The only thing which worried us was the road, which we found just like the military road of the night before. There was something new about it, though, after all, for along this road peace was approaching and we were the only ones who would see it come.
Suddenly, the air above us was covered with a resounding dome-like canopy. Against a big rock jutting out over the road, a grenade had violently burst. Pebbles fell all about us, and the sergeant grew pale. His beard was shaken like a forest through which a horde of frightened wild boars are racing.
“Why—it’s a mistake! You know very well that it can’t stop all at once over the whole front! Wait! We’ll try the telephone. You’re crazy! It’s all over! You’ll see there’ll be no more firing!” But they did fire, just the same. Above our heads they built a regular cupola made of resounding arches. We proved it, as we cautiously beat a retreat. And when at last, breathless, and running as hard as we could, we gained a bend in the road and were safe, we stopped to draw breath, and the sergeant tore in shreds his splendid vision, in a single cry of pain.
“The devil! One time—one time or another it’s got to end! Got anything left to drink in your thing-a-majig? Give me a swallow. I’ve emptied mine!”