by Edna Wahlert McCourt
The captain had been in and about the trenches there years before he crossed the Atlantic.
And yet, although there were apparently hordes of us Americas who were eager and able to talk French with him, he could not be persuaded to speak of himself personally, or of his intimate experiences. There was rumor of much that he might have told—months in the thick of the fight; shrapnel wounds; and, during convalescence, heroic defense of a church, hallowed by the Red Cross and bombarded by the enemy.
There was a report of promotion and transfer to the engineering Corps; of consultations and conferences with the highest authorities of France; of his mission to the United States to purchase gasoline. Yes, there was gossip of much that he might have told; but I was given to understand that before he came to Oklahoma he had been strangely silent on the subject of his own history.
Of course, I had my doubts about his irrevocable reticence. As a plain, cool-headed prospector who has been up and down and around and across the continent for half a century, I had yet to meet the man whose tongue would not wag briskly and with even astonishing eloquence when given as a theme the history of its possessor. Even a dumb man, I believed, would manage to convey to any willing listener a chronicle of his own little story.
But our Senator assured me this was not the case with the captain.
“I’ve been with him in New York and in Washington, and we were on the same train coming down here,” he said. “It’s a fact, true as the seasons, that the captain doesn’t mix himself up in his talk of The Cause. I’ve seen him under a good many different circumstances, too, and I’ve heard all sorts and sexes cross-question him in all grades of French. But I assure you he clung to the big issues like a cactus to the sand. When they got him in an exceptionally tight place he would actually say, ‘Qu’ importe moi-méme? Je ne signifie rien. In n’y a que la cause.’ ”
“Which means in American English?”
“That he himself doesn’t matter; that nothing matters but the cause of France.”
My skepticism clung, however. “Give him the time and the place and he’ll loosen up,” I insisted.
“Perhaps.” But the Senator smiled a slightly superior smile. It was plain he didn’t agree with me.
Now I was particularly anxious just then to obtain information about certain activities of the extra Congressional session, just adjourned, so the Senator and I changed the subject, and I rather forgot about the captain until the following night.
The Senator was home, campaigning for the Liberty Loan.
In the hills and the inhabited districts of our State he had been more than successful in securing subscriptions, but he was a man who knew his people and was, therefore, not sanguine of happy results in my county, which is the county of Flathead and one of the richest and youngest oil centers in the world.
Incidentally the captain who was with us to investigate our gasoline prospects— was as fascinated as a boy or a poet with the history of Oklahoma, and he urged the Senator for all manner of details. He wanted to hear all about the portioning of the territory by the United States government to the various Indian tribes; all about the miraculous mint of oil treasure which suddenly gushed from the barrenness, making millionaires of the outcast red men.
“C’est une fable—une légende de fée,” the captain vowed. “Le bon Dieu a eu affaire de celui-là.”
When the Senator translated that the captain felt our oil-fields were God-given, so to speak, to the Indians in compensation for the white man’s usurpation of his bigger dominion, I said:
“Seems like the captain is a pious chap.” And the Senator smiled again, a slightly superior smile. He didn’t agree with me.
“There never was a less orthodox man,” he replied.
As I said, the Senator was campaigning for the Liberty Loan.
A mass meeting had been called at the county seat of Flathead that Saturday night, and he was to be the principal speaker. He confided to me that he considered his task a pretty onerous and difficult one, and I confess I felt no desire to stand in his stockings.
It was for the most part a hard crowd which assembled, hard-headed, hard-lipped. True, it was composed of men who made and held money lightly, but at this particular moment every John Smith wanted to sink what lucre he possessed into new oil holes.
The men had come in for forty miles around, willing to flock to the county’s center at the slightest excuse for gathering, the slightest pretense of carouse. True, we were bone dry—but who would drink, could. The roads, dusty as though strewn foot-deep with tawny flour, began early to line up automobiles, and our so-called “Square” began to blacken with people. A sort of speakers’ stand had been knocked together to accommodate the band the Senator had imported and the “leading citizens,” and there was a chair for the captain.
I said to him (he seemed to understand pretty nearly everything spoken in English):
“Any one who says the Wild West days are over doesn’t know. This is as typical a “boom” town as ever sprung up over-night, and as typical a crowd as ever created and lost millions. Except for the fact that the boys tear around on Fords instead of broncos and in goggles instead of chaps, you might he watching a William S. Hart film to-night.”
And the captain did watch. He watched the men who had assembled; watched their hard faces and the softness veiled by their eyes; watched the grim, cynical curve of their lips and the gentle something that lurked in the corners, watched the bold poise of their shoulders, and the gnarled fingers he seemed to sense could twitch and tighten with emotion.
And, somehow, the eyes of that crowd began to pivot about him. I confess he was unusual to look upon—solemn and boyish and uplifted. And bits of his mission and his story had filtered through the masses, naturally haloing him to our elemental and there hero-worshiping crew.
The Senator spoke splendidly.
The effort he made to arouse that crude crowd to patriotic response was magnificent. He played to their emotion and their intelligence. He appealed to their sympathy and their loyalty. He frankly avowed the nation’s need for money. He let his voice range from fortissimo through tremulo and back again. He put himself through all the conventional gestures; his vocabulary through every pace, from flowery oratory to good U. S. A. slang. He both begged and bullied the boys to come up to the Liberty Loan booth which he had had built on the platform and subscribe!—subscribe!
But though the audience did clap and cheer him. the Senator knew, as he resumed his seat, that he had failed. Exuberant spirits, not conviction of the men themselves, created the shouting. He knew they would hold on to their money.
The band crashed into “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But he murmured as he wiped the evidence of effort from his face:
“They aren’t going to pony up. Those boys are neither fools nor leaves of an aspen, to bend to my will. Only a few month ago I was haranguing them to vote for Wilson because he was going to keep usout of the war—and now I’m trying to get them to fork over their good money in order to make war. They see the illogicalness of my position. I haven’t been able to out over the deep necessity. I guess, he muttered, “I’ve lost my hold on this bunch. It will take a bigger man than me to move them now.”
His eyes, genuinely troubled, scanned the strange crowd; and then unconsciously veered to the captain.
Swift as thought an inspiration came to the Senator. As I said, he knew his people. Psychologist, politician, bulldog—he suddenly gripped the captain’s knee. And all pretense was gone, and any barrier of tongue. There was no French for the Senator.
“Captain!” His eyes had become incandescent. “Captain, you’ve got to make a speech! You’re going to make a speech! You’re going to win that granitic bunch for me! You’re going to make them buy the bonds! You’re going to talk to them!”
The captain looked mildly astonished for a moment, but then he smiled, amused. He thought, of course, the Senator was joking.
But the Senator was deadly serious. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the Frenchman’s knees harder, and the muscles under the skin of his jaws moved determinedly, like little waves of light.
“You’re going to talk to them, man!” he repeated between his teeth. “You’re going to get them. They’ve got to come across! You’ve got to bring ’em!”
The captain understood then, but he was completely taken aback, even pathetically frightened.
“Moi? ” he exclaimed. “Mais non! Mais—je ne peux pas le faire! Je n’ai pas le vocabulaire! Je n’ai pas des—”
But the Senator interrupted with what were rudeness had it not been earnestness. “Talk American! And don’t say you can’t! Don’t think you can’t! You’ve got to make a speech to these fellows. That’s all there is to it. You’ve caught their eye. They’ll be putty in your hands. I know. Haven’t I been studying crowds for thirty years?”
The captain had turned white as his teeth. “Mais, Je ne peux pas— “ he stammered. “I cannot. I do not speak ze English. “Je ne peux pas—”
But the Senator’s square jaw only clicked impatiently.
You’re got to.” he repeated. And then “You’ve got to make a speech!” he repeated again.
Beseechingly the captain looked at me. but I shook my head, declining to interfere.
“The Senator always has his way, captain,” was all 1 could say.
The troubled foreigner turned to Drumlong, the man whom he had really come to Oklahoma to see (the old fellow was setting up a five-million-dollar refinery), but Drumlong offered even less encouragement.
“Oh, just say anything,” he suggested. “You don’t have to make much of a speech. You really do know a little English.”
“Je n’en sais rien!” cried the captain pathetically. “Je ne peux parler Anglais! Je ne sais que des mots techniques—gasoline, pressure, benzine, temperature, oil—je ne sais que des simplex comprendre, mais—”
“Better make a stab at it anyway,” old Drumlong volunteered again. “I’ll help you out sotto voce if you get stuck.”
The band stopped screaming with a blast. From a dance-hall somewhere up the street floated insidious rag-time. Almost imperceptibly, but certainly, the crowd swayed toward it.
And the Senator leaped to the speakers’ stand.
“Men!” he cried loudly, yet solemnly. “There is with us to-night one who can urge you far better than myself to loyalty and cooperation; one who can better make you understand why your country asks you to subscribe to the Liberty Loan! This man has been in the thick of the European fight for three years. He has seen. He knows why you must win this war! And he is going to tell you. You understand to whom I refer. Your eyes are upon him. True, his speaking knowledge of our language is limited; but a real man can speak to real men with something besides words! In spite of the obstacle of being obliged to use a strange tongue, he is going to address you. He is not going to make a set speech. He is not prepared to make a set speech. As you know, his talk has not even been scheduled. But I feel he has a message for you! And so it is my great honor and my great privilege to introduce to you, and it will be your great honor and your great privilege to hear—the captain!”
The instantaneous answering murmur, swelled gradually to thunderous applause, might have come from one mighty throat.
And the volume of the cheer lifted the captain to his feet.
Now I give you my word that he was white and shaken and dumb, for all his fine, proud soldier bearing. He did sway toward the crowd hungrily, with something like eagerness and sadness in his eyes. “If only I could talk to you! If only I could make you understand!” they seemed to say. But I assure you he was utterly at a loss for speech. So he wheeled to the Senator, flinging out one hand in a gesture which was pleading for release.
But by a queer trick of fate his action was metamorphosed. To all intents and purposes, his flung fingers only indicated majestically, almost touched, the two flags—American and French—which floated behind him at the back of the erected stand.
And as the soldier’s eyes followed his fingers, his feet took him backward a little— until his hand clutched the two flags. Simply, and not unafraid, he united them—lifted them forward—high—and together. Unconsciously he had symbolized whatever speech he could make, whatever speech he could wish to make.
How the crowd yelled then! Leave it to a crowd to catch the real dramatics of a gesture! Those men understood.
Picture the scene, if you can. The black-brown prairie stretching farther than any eye could, treed like a forest with oil derricks, each burning its pipe of waste gas like a torch and lighting the night wide with mystery and shadows and moon-colored smoke; the startling Southern stars only arm-high overhead; the crude, less-than-two-year-old town, its houses just boxes except for a sky-scraper that lifted its skeleton to the sky; the granitic black crowd with white faces rainbowed by splashes of red and bright blue where Indians slouched; and up on the platform that beautiful big, blond Frenchman touching two flags as a priest holds a cross.
Even I leaped to my feet.
As the shouting died, words were born to the captain.
I cannot say that he spoke like a man in a trance or under hypnotic control, although his voice, in a feather-still silence the crowd made, was indeed very low-pitched and perhaps a trifle monotonous, as blows of a hammer are. I cannot say his English was wholly correct, or his accent, or his grammar. But I am telling the truth that this man who could not speak English did speak it—with earnest, uplifted simplicity, and without any halting.
“My friends and allies,” he said. “Men, I will speak to you. You are ze fighters, I am ze fighter: I speak to you man to ze man. I tell you how it is zat I am here. It is te very single story. It is ze very unimportant story—ze part zat is mine—but I tell it.
“Four year ago I was ze artist. I paint ze pictures. My fazer was ze rich man. I have everysing. I travel. All over ze continent I travel—but Greece I love ze best, and ze Black Forest of Germany. I have ze friend in ze Black Forest. I laugh wiz him, I paint ze pictures for him, I tell him of ze affairs of my government—I have been ze officer two year. He write me much. He ask me bring my friends who were zen ze officer to his lodge. We have ze good time togezer.
“Zen come ze war. “I go to ze fight. “My home it is in ze norzern part of France. My fazer have ze gasoline business—ze big gasoline business. Ze enemy come straight to his plant. You know who lead zem—My friend of ze Black Forest! I have told him my fazer have ze important papers. He gets zem all. He tear our pictures; he takes my sister to keep his house, to cook for his men. My sister work still for ze Germans like ze servant, and se have one baby.
“My brozer have ze wife and six children. He is killed at ze first battle. Ze Germans take his land, his family. I hear zat one of his little boys—five year old he was—do not salute ze German officier. He forget. So every time, five zousand francs zey fine ze mozer! All ze money se have goes to ze Germans. Se is ze beggar know. Se work for ze Germans.
“Ze first time I see ze enemy come, I notice what is like ze cloud before ze regiment. It is ze women and ze little children zat zey put before ze guns. So we French cannot fight. We cannot kill ze women and ze little children who scream before ze big guns. We retreat. And zen I say, ‘Ze enemy is bad. Ze enemy is not good. We must beat zis enemy.’
“When I have ze wounds. I see how ze Germans hurt ze hospital, ze nurse, ze church. I see zey have no soul, ze German army. And so I say anozer time, ‘Ze enemy is not good.’
“When zey retreat zey kill ze trees. Ze trees! If zey blow up ze railroad, ze bridge— to zat I say, ‘Yes, zat is war.’ But when zey blow up everysing in ze little small houses everywhere and kill all ze trees, zen I say, ‘Ze enemy is bad.’
“I tell you from ze heart zat every Frenchman have ze same or ze worse reason to say, ‘Ze enemy is bad.’ If 1 talk all ze night to you I cannot tell one little part of how well I know ze enemy is bad.
“I do not say we are ze good people. No. We were ze decadent people, we French. Ze war is a fine sing to wake us up. We need ze war. But we are not ze bad people. We do not kill to kill. We do not destroy to destroy. No ozer big people do, no ozer big army do but ze German army do.
“Why do zey fight, ze Germans? I cannot know. Zey have ze big, beautiful, rich country. All ze world honored and loved zem for what zey achieve. Zey do not fight for some big sing like ze religion. Zev fight to kill.
“And so I say to you, ‘Ze enemy must be whipped. We must whip ze enemy.’ And do you notice—I say we!
“For no man lives in ze small town any more. Each man lives in ze world. Ze world is like ze barrel of apples—not any apple os safe if zer is one rotten apple in ze barrel.
“I say to you from ze heart—win ze war. I say from ze heart—give ze men. I say from ze heart—give ze money. It is ze Liberty Loan you must subscribe to zis night—ze Liberty Loan! Can you not understand? I know you-all make ze big money. Ze men who dig ze wells, ze carpenter who build ze derrick all make ze eight, ten, ze fifteen dollar ze day. You ‘blow in,’ as you say, hundred, thousand dollar in ze one night sometimes. I know. And if you have ze cash in ze hand—ze ten, ze twenty zousand dollar- you razer use it to dig anozer oil-well zan to buy ze Liberty Loan. Is it not so?
“But I tell you from ze heart put ze money in ze Liberty Loan. Ze Senator, he tell you why. I try to tell you why. I cannot speak, but you will understand.
“And you will do zis.”
For a moment the captain and the crowd gazed into each other.
And then old Kiowa-Chief shuffled up to the booth. He was a big, fat, sloppy Indian, dressed in slouching moccasins and gray trousers. A purple-blue shawl snuggled over his shoulders and a flame-colored rag circled his brow. He laid one great, red, pudgy paw on the table-top, and with the other removed the rich Havana on which he had been sucking.
“I buy,” he said loudly, “one-half of one million dollars of Liberty Bonds!”
And that burst the silence into a yell. How that crowd yelled! The men fought to the booth. They emptied their pockets. They promised—how they promised! The bonds sold to a figure that staggered us.
When the excitement had lulled I remarked to the Frenchman:
“That was a pretty good speech for a fellow who never before uttered a real paragraph of English.”
Old Drumlong said, aside to me: “Now, really, it wasn’t bad. He probably knows our lingo better than he realizes. And besides, I prompted him rather a bit. Couldn’t you hear me?”
The young lawyer who was handling the bonds for the county—a suave little runt— began to orate on the psychology of the mob—his notion being that the crowd had not only “inspired” the captain to supreme effort, but had actually supplied him with the words of his talk, telepathically, so to speak.
However, I caught the captain and the Senator whispering under their flags, and I heard them laugh softly, a little like two wondering boys.
“Come. What does the captain think about his suddenly loosened tongue?” I begged the Senator to tell me.
“He doesn’t know! He can’t explain it. He says it was a miracle, his talk. He says he knows he couldn’t do it again even if he tried.”
“Why were you laughing so queerly—”
“Oh” —the Senator tried to be offhand — “we were just recollecting how speech in strange tongues came to men in the Bible days. Remember? Of course” —lightly— “we don’t believe there’s anything supernatural in this sort of thing—”
But I noticed his eyes and the captain’s met with a dazzling, queer spark.