In honor of the armistice of the end of World War I and Veterans in many countries, we present a fictional piece describing an American soldier’s experience in France in 1917 when he and his comrades come across a cheese shop in Rouen. This extract is from the World War I novel One of Ours by Willa Cather, an American writer. The novel won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize. It tells the story of the life of Claude Wheeler, a Nebraska native who joins the US Army and is sent to France during World War I, just like the step Grandfather I never knew.
At noon that day Claude found himself in a street of little shops, hot and perspiring, utterly confused and turned about. Truck drivers and boys on bell less bicycles shouted at him indignantly, furiously. He got under the shade of a young plane tree and stood close to the trunk, as if it might protect him. His greatest care, at any rate, was off his hands. With the help of Victor Morse he had hired a taxi for forty francs, taken Fanning to the base hospital, and seen him into the arms of a big orderly from Texas. He came away from the hospital with no idea where he was going–except that he wanted to get to the heart of the city. It seemed, however, to have no heart; only long, stony arteries, full of heat and noise. He was still standing there, under his plane tree, when a group of uncertain, lost-looking brown figures, headed by Sergeant Hicks, came weaving up the street; nine men in nine different attitudes of dejection, each with a long loaf of bread under his arm. They hailed Claude with joy, straightened up, and looked as if now they had found their way! He saw that he must be a plane tree for somebody else.
Sergeant Hicks explained that they had been trudging about the town, looking for cheese. After sixteen days of heavy, tasteless food, cheese was what they all wanted. There was a grocery store up the street, where there seemed to be everything else. He had tried to make the old woman understand by signs.
« Don’t these French people eat cheese, anyhow? What’s their word for it, Lieutenant? I’m damned if I know, and I’ve lost my phrase book. Suppose you could make her understand? »
« Well, I’ll try. Come along, boys. »
Crowding close together, the ten men entered the shop. The proprietress ran forward with an exclamation of despair. Evidently she had thought she was done with them, and was not pleased to see them coming back. When she paused to take breath, Claude took off his hat respectfully, and performed the bravest act of his life; uttered the first phrase-book sentence he had ever spoken to a French person. His men were at his back; he had to say something or run, there was no other course. Looking the old woman in the eye, he steadily articulated:
« Avez-vous du fromage, Madame? » It was almost inspiration to add the last word, he thought; and when it worked, he was as much startled as if his revolver had gone off in his belt.
« Du fromage? » the shop woman screamed. Calling something to her daughter, who was at the desk, she caught Claude by the sleeve, pulled him out of the shop, and ran down the street with him. She dragged him into a doorway darkened by a long curtain, greeted the proprietress, and then pushed the men after their officer, as if they were stubborn burros.
They stood blinking in the gloom, inhaling a sour, damp, buttery, smear-kase smell, until their eyes penetrated the shadows and they saw that there was nothing but cheese and butter in the place. The shopkeeper was a fat woman, with black eyebrows that met above her nose; her sleeves were rolled up, her cotton dress was open over her white throat and bosom. She began at once to tell them that there was a restriction on milk products; every one must have cards; she could not sell them so much. But soon there was nothing left to dispute about. The boys fell upon her stock like wolves. The little white cheeses that lay on green leaves disappeared into big mouths. Before she could save it, Hicks had split a big round cheese through the middle and was carving it up like a melon. She told them they were dirty pigs and worse than the Boches, but she could not stop them.
« What’s the matter with Mother, Lieutenant? What’s she fussing about? Ain’t she here to sell goods? »
Claude tried to look wiser than he was. « From what I can make out, there’s some sort of restriction; you aren’t allowed to buy all you want. We ought to have thought about that; this is a war country. I guess we’ve about cleaned her out. »
« Oh, that’s all right, » said Hicks wiping his clasp-knife. « We’ll bring her some sugar tomorrow. One of the fellows who helped us unload at the docks told me you can always quiet ’em if you give ’em sugar. »
They surrounded her and held out their money for her to take her pay. « Come on, ma’m, don’t be bashful. What’s the matter, ain’t this good money? »
She was distracted by the noise they made, by their bronzed faces with white teeth and pale eyes, crowding so close to her. Ten large, well-shaped hands with straight fingers, the open palms full of crumpled notes . . . . Holding the men off under the pretence of looking for a pencil, she made rapid calculations. The money that lay in their palms had no relation to these big, coaxing, boisterous fellows; it was a joke to them; they didn’t know what it meant in the world. Behind them were shiploads of money, and behind the ships . . . .
The situation was unfair. Whether she took much or little out of their hands, couldn’t possibly matter to the Americans, couldn’t even dash their good humour. But there was a strain on the cheesewoman, and the standards of a lifetime were in jeopardy. Her mind mechanically fixed upon two-and-a-half ; she would charge them two-and-a-half times the market price of the cheese. With this moral plank to cling to, she made change with conscientious accuracy and did not keep a penny too much from anybody. Telling them what big stupids they were, and that it was necessary to learn to count in this world, she urged them out of her shop. She liked them well enough, but she did not like to do business with them. If she didn’t take their money, the next one would. All the same, fictitious values were distasteful to her, and made everything seem flimsy and unsafe.
Standing in her doorway, she watched the brown band go ambling down the street; as they passed in front of the old church of St. Jacques, the two foremost stumbled on a sunken step that was scarcely above the level of the pavement. She laughed aloud. They looked back and waved to her. She replied with a smile that was both friendly and angry. She liked them, but not the legend of waste and prodigality that ran before them–and followed after. It was superfluous and disintegrating in a world of hard facts. An army in which the men had meat for breakfast, and ate more every day than the French soldiers at the front got in a week! Their moving kitchens and supply trains were the wonder of France. Down below Arles, where her husband’s sister had married, on the desolate plain of the Crau, their tinned provisions were piled like mountain ranges, under sheds and canvas. Nobody had ever seen so much food before; coffee, milk, sugar, bacon, hams; everything the world was famished for. They brought shiploads of useless things, too. And useless people. Shiploads of women who were not nurses; some said they came to dance with the officers, so they would not be ennuyes.
All this was not war,–any more than having money thrust at you by grown men who could not count, was business. It was an invasion, like the other. The first destroyed material possessions, and this threatened everybody’s integrity. Distaste of such methods, deep, recoiling distrust of them, clouded the cheesewoman’s brow as she threw her money into the drawer and turned the key on it.
As for the doughboys, having once stubbed their toes on the sunken step, they examined it with interest, and went in to explore the church. It was in their minds that they must not let a church escape, any more than they would let a Boche escape. Within they came upon a bunch of their shipmates, including the Kansas band, to whom they boasted that their Lieutenant could « speak French like a native. »
The Lieutenant himself thought he was getting on pretty well, but a few hours later his pride was humbled. He was sitting alone in a little triangular park beside another church,, admiring the cropped locust trees and watching some old women who were doing their mending in the shade. A little boy in a black apron, with a close-shaved, bare head, came along, skipping rope. He hopped lightly up to Claude and said in a most persuasive and confiding voice
« Voulez-vous me dire l’heure, s’il vous plaît, M’sieu’ l’ soldat? »
Claude looked down into his admiring eyes with a feeling of panic. He wouldn’t mind being dumb to a man, or even to a pretty girl, but this was terrible. His tongue went dry, and his face grew scarlet. The child’s expectant gaze changed to a look of doubt, and then of fear. He had spoken before to Americans who didn’t understand, but they had not turned red and looked angry like this one; this soldier must be ill, or wrong in his head. The boy turned and ran away.
Many a serious mishap had distressed Claude less. He was disappointed, too. There was something friendly in the boy’s face that he wanted . . . that he needed. As he rose he ground his heel into the gravel. « Unless I can learn to talk to the CHILDREN of this country, » he muttered, « I’ll go home! »