The V.C. by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
I had forgotten that I ordered frogs' legs. When mine were placed before me I laughed. I always laugh at the sight of frogs' legs because of the person and the day of which they remind me. Nobody noticed that I laughed or asked the reason why, though it was an audible chuckle, and though I sat at the head of my own dinner-party at the Cosmic Club.
The man for whom the dinner was given, Colonel Robert Thornton, my cousin, a Canadian, who got his leg shot off at Vimy Ridge, was making oration about the German Crown Prince's tactics at Verdun, and that was the reason that ten men were not paying attention to me and that I was not paying attention to Bobby. When the good chap talks human talk, tells what happened to people and what their psychological processes seemed to be, he is entertaining. He has a genuine gift of sympathy and a power to lead others in the path he treads; in short, he tells a good story. But like most people who do one thing particularly well he is always priding himself on the way he does something else. He likes to look at Colonel Thornton as a student of the war, and he has the time of his life when he can get people to listen to what he knows Joffre and Foch and Haig and Hindenberg ought to have done. So at this moment he was enjoying his evening, for the men I had asked to meet him, all strangers to him, ignorant of his real powers, were hanging on his words, partly because no one can help liking him whatever he talks about, and partly because, with that pathetic empty trouser-leg and the crutch hooked over his chair, he was an undoubted hero. So I heard the sentences ambling, and reflected that Hilaire Belloc with maps and a quiet evening would do my tactical education more good than Bobby Thornton's discursions. And about then I chuckled unnoticed, over the silly frogs' legs.
"Tell me, Colonel Thornton, do you consider that the French made a mistake in concentrating so much of their reserve--" It was the Governor himself who was demanding this earnestly of Bobby. And I saw that the Governor and the rest were hypnotized, and did not need me.
So I sat at the head of the table, and waiters brooded over us, and cucumbers and the usual trash happened, and Bobby held forth while the ten who were bidden listened as to one sent from heaven. And, being superfluous, I withdrew mentally to a canoe in a lonely lake and went frogging.
Vicariously. I do not like frogging in person. The creature smiles. Also he appeals because he is ugly and complacent. But for the grace of God I might have looked so. He sits in supreme hideousness frozen to the end of a wet log, with his desirable hind legs spread in view, and smiles his bronze smile of confidence in his own charm and my friendship. It is more than I can do to betray that smile. So, hating to destroy the beast yet liking to eat the leg, about once in my summer vacation in camp I go frogging, and make the guides do it.
It would not be etiquette to send them out alone, for in our club guides are supposed to do no fishing or shooting--no sport. Therefore, I sit in a canoe and pretend to take a frog in a landing-net and miss two or three and shortly hand over the net to Josef. We have decided on landing-nets as our tackle. I once shot the animals with a .22 Flobert rifle, but almost invariably they dropped, like a larger bullet, off the log and into the mud, and that was the end. We never could retrieve them. Also at one time we fished them with a many-pronged hook and a bit of red flannel. But that seemed too bitter a return for the bronze smile, and I disliked the method, besides being bad at it. We took to the landing-net.
To see Josef, enraptured with the delicate sport, approach a net carefully till within an inch of the smile, and then give the old graven image a smart rap on the legs in question to make him leap headlong into the snare--to see that and Josef's black Indian eyes glitter with joy at the chase is amusing. I make him slaughter the game instantly, which appears supererogatory to Josef who would exactly as soon have a collection of slimy ones leaping around the canoe. But I have them dead and done for promptly, and piled under the stern seat. And on we paddle to the next.
The day to which I had retired from my dinner-party and the tactical lecture of my distinguished cousin was a late August day of two years before. The frogging fleet included two canoes, that of young John Dudley who was doing his vacation with me, and my own. In each canoe, as is Hoyle for canoeing in Canada, were two guides and a "m'sieur." The other boat, John's, was somewhere on the opposite shore of Lac des Passes, the Lake of the Passes, crawling along edges of bays and specializing in old logs and submerged rocks, after frogs with a landing-net, the same as us. But John--to my mind coarser--was doing his own frogging. The other boat was nothing to us except for an occasional yell when geography brought us near enough, of "How many?" and envy and malice and all uncharitableness if the count was more, and hoots of triumph if less.
In my craft sailed, besides Josef and myself, as bow paddler, The Tin Lizzie. We called him that except when he could hear us, and I think it would have done small harm to call him so then, as he had the brain of a jack-rabbit and managed not to know any English, even when soaked in it daily. John Dudley had named him because of the plebeian and reliable way in which he plugged along Canadian trails. He set forth the queerest walk I have ever seen--a human Ford, John said. He was also quite mad about John. There had been a week in which Dudley, much of a doctor, had treated, with cheerful patience and skill, an infected and painful hand of the guide's, and this had won for him the love eternal of our Tin Lizzie. Little John Dudley thought, as he made jokes to distract the boy, and worked over his big throbbing fist, the fist which meant daily bread--little John thought where the plant of love springing from that seed of gratitude would at last blossom. Little he thought as the two sat on the gallery of the camp, and the placid lake broke in silver on pebbles below, through what hell of fire and smoke and danger the kindliness he gave to the stupid young guide would be given back to him. Which is getting ahead of the story.
I suggested that the Lizzie might like a turn at frogging, and Josef, with Indian wordlessness, handed the net to him. Whereupon, with his flabby mouth wide and his large gray eyes gleaming, he proceeded to miss four easy ones in succession. And with that Josef, in a gibberish which is French-Canadian patois of the inner circles, addressed the Tin Lizzie and took away the net from him, asking no orders from me. The Lizzie, pipe in mouth as always, smiled just as pleasantly under this punishment as in the hour of his opportunities. He would have been a very handsome boy, with his huge eyes and brilliant brown and red color and his splendid shoulders and slim waist of an athlete if only he had possessed a ray of sense. Yet he was a good enough guide to fill in, for he was strong and willing and took orders amiably from anybody and did his routine of work, such as chopping wood and filling lamps and bringing water and carrying boats, with entire efficiency. That he had no initiative at all and by no chance did anything he was not told to, even when most obvious, that he was lacking in any characteristic of interest, that he was moreover a supreme coward, afraid to be left alone in the woods--these things were after all immaterial, for, as John pointed out, we didn't really need to love our guides.
John also pointed out that the Lizzie--his name was, incidentally, Aristophe--had one nice quality. Of course, it was a quality which appealed most to the beneficiary, yet it seemed well to me also to have my guests surrounded with mercy and loving kindness. John had but to suggest building a fire or greasing his boots or carrying a canoe over any portage to any lake, and the Lizzie at once leaped with a bright smile as who should say that this was indeed a pleasure. "C'est bien, M'sieur," was his formula. He would gaze at John for sections of an hour, with his flabby mouth open in speechless surprise as if at the unbelievable glory and magnificence of M'sieur. A nice lad, John Dudley was, but no subtle enchanter; a stocky and well-set-up young man with a whole-souled, garrulous and breezy way, and a gift of slang and a brilliant grin. What called forth hero-worship towards him I never understood; but no more had I understood why Mildred Thornton, Colonel Thornton's young sister, my very beautiful cousin, should have selected him, from a large assortment of suitors, to marry. Indeed I did not entirely understand why I liked having John in camp better than anyone else; probably it was essentially the same charm which impelled Mildred to want to live with him, and the Tin Lizzie to fall down and worship. In any case the Lizzie worshipped with a primitive and unashamed and enduring adoration, which stood even the test of fear. That was the supreme test for the Tin Lizzie, who was a coward of cowards. Rather cruelly I bet John on a day that his satellite did not love him enough to go out to the club-house alone for him, and the next day John was in sore need of tobacco, not to be got nearer than the club.
"Aristophe will go out and get it for me," he announced as Aristophe--the Lizzie--trotted about the table at lunch-time purveying us flapjacks.
The Tin Lizzie stood rooted a second, petrified at the revolutionary scheme of his going to the club, companions unmentioned. There one saw as if through glass an idea seeking a road through his smooth gray matter. One had always gone to the club with Josef, or Maxime or Pierre--certainly M'sieur meant that; one would of course be glad to go--with Josef or Maxime or Pierre--to get tobacco for M'sieur John. Of course, the idea slid through the old road in the almost unwrinkled gray matter, and came safely to headquarters.
"C'est bien, M'sieur," answered the Lizzie smiling brightly.
And with that I knocked the silly little smile into a cocked hat. "You may start early tomorrow, Aristophe," I said, "and get back by dark, going light, I can't spare any other men to go with you. But you will certainly not mind going alone--to get tobacco for M'sieur John."
The poor Tin Lizzie turned red and then white, and his weak mouth fell open and his eyebrows lifted till the whites of his eyes showed above the gray irises. And one saw again, through the crystal of his unexercised brain, the operation of a painful and new thought. M'sieur John--a day alone in the woods--love, versus fear--which would win. John and I watched the struggle a bit mercilessly. A grown man gets small sympathy for being a coward. And yet few forms of suffering are keener. We watched; and the Tin Lizzie stood and gasped in the play of his emotions. Nobody had ever given this son of the soil ideals to hold to through sudden danger; no sense of inherited honor to be guarded came to help the Lizzie; he had been taught to work hard and save his skin--little else. The great adoration for John which had swept him off his commonplace feet--was it going to make good against life-long selfish caution? We wondered. It was curious to watch the new big feeling fight the long-established petty one. And it was with a glow of triumph quite out of drawing that we saw the generous instinct win the battle.
"Oui, M'sieur," spoke Aristophe, unconscious of subtleties or watching. "I go tomorrow--alone. C'est bien, M'sieur."
It was about the only remark I ever heard him make, that gracious: "C'est bien, M'sieur!" But he made it remarkably well. Almost he persuaded me to respect him with that hearty response to the call of duty, that humble and high gift of graciousness. One remembers him as his dolly face lighted at John's order to go and clean trout or carry in logs, and one does not forget the absurd, queer little fast trot at which his powerful young legs would instantaneously swing off to obey the behest. Such was the Tin Lizzie, the guide who paddled bow in my canvas canoe on the day of the celebrated frog hunt.
That the frog hunt was celebrated was owing to the Lizzie. He should have been in John's boat, as one of John's guides, but at the last moment, there was a confusion of tongues and Lizzie was shipped aboard my canoe. In the excitement of the chase Josef, stern man, had faced about to manipulate his landing-net; Aristophe also slewed around and, sitting on the gunwale, became stern paddler. I was in the middle screwed anyhow, watching the frog fishing and enjoying the enjoyment of the men. Poor chaps, it was the only bit of personal play they got out of our month of play. Aristophe, the Tin Lizzie, was quite mad with the excitement even from his very second fiddle standpoint of paddler to Josef's frogging. His enormous gray eyes snapped, his teeth showed white and gold around his pipe--which he nearly bit off--and he even used language.
"Tiens! Encore un!" hissed the Lizzie in a blood-curdling whisper as a new pair of pop eyes lifted from the edge of a rotten log.
And Josef, who had always seen the frog first, fired a guttural sentence, full of contempt, full of friendliness, for he sized up the Lizzie, his virtues and his limitations, accurately. And then the boat was pushed and pulled in the shallow water till Josef and the net were within range. With, that came the slow approach of the net to the smile, the swift tap on the eatable legs, and headlong into his finish leaped M. Crapaud. Which is rot his correct name, Josef tells me, in these parts, but M. Guarron. And that, being translated, means Mr. Very-Big-Bull-Frog.
Business had prospered to fourteen or fifteen head of frogs, and we calculated that the other boat might have a dozen when, facing towards Aristophe, I saw his dull, fresh face suddenly change. My pulse missed a beat at that expression. It was adequate to an earthquake or sudden death. How the fatuous doll-like features could have been made to register that stare of a soul in horror I can't guess. But they did. The whites of his eyes showed an eighth of an inch above the irises and his black eyebrows were shot up to the roots of his glossy black hair. In the gleaming white and gold of his teeth the pipe was still gripped. And while I gazed, astonished, his unfitting deep voice issued from that mask of fear:
"Tiens! Encore un!" And I screwed about and saw that the Lizzie was running the boat on top of an enormous frog which he had not spied till the last second. With that Josef exploded throaty language and leaning sidewise made a dive at the frog. Aristophe, unbalanced with emotion and Josef's swift movement shot from his poise at the end of the little craft, and landed, in a foot of water, flat on his buck, and the frog seized that second to jump on his stomach.
I never heard an Indian really laugh before that day. The hills resounded with Josef's shouts. We laughed, Josef and I, till we were weak, and for a good minute Aristophe sprawled in the lake, with the frog anchored as if till Kingdom come on his middle, and howled lusty howls while we laughed. Then Josef fished the frog and got him off the Tin Lizzie's lungs. And Aristophe, weeping, scrambled into the boat. And as we went home in the cool forest twilight, up the portage by the rushing, noisy rapids, Josef, walking before us, carrying the landing-net full of frogs' legs, shook with laughter every little while again, as Aristophe, his wet strong young legs, the only section of him showing, toiled ahead up the winding thread of a trail, carrying the inverted canoe on his head.
It was this adventure which came to me and seized me and carried me a thousand miles northward into Canadian forest as I looked at the frogs' legs on my plate at the Cosmic Club, and did not listen to my cousin, the Colonel, talking military tactics.
The mental review took an eighth of the time it has taken me to tell it. But as I shook off my dream of the woods, I realized that, while Thornton still talked, he had got out of his uninteresting rut into his interesting one. Without hearing what he said I knew that from the look of the men's faces. Each man's eyes were bright, through a manner of mistiness, and there was a sudden silence which was perhaps what had recalled me.
"It's a war which is making a new standard of courage," spoke the young Governor in the gentle tone which goes so oddly and so pleasantly with his bull-dog jaw. "It looks as if we were going to be left with a world where heroism is the normal thing," spoke the Governor.
"Heroism--yes," said Bobby, and I knew with satisfaction that he was off on his own line, the line he does not fancy, the line where few can distance him. "Heroism!" repeated Bobby, "It's all around out there. And it crops out--" he begun to smile--"in unsuspected places, from varied impulses."
He was working his way to an anecdote. The men at the table, their chairs twisted towards him, sat very still.
"What I mean to say is," Bobby began, "that this war, horrible as it is, is making over human, nature for the better. It's burning out selfishness and cowardice and a lot of faults from millions of men, and it's holding up the nobility of what some of them do to the entire world. It takes a character, this debacle, and smashes out the littleness. Another thing is curious. If a small character has one good point on which to hang heroism, the battle-spirit searches out that point and plants on it the heroism. There was a stupid young private in my command who--but I'm afraid I'm telling too many war stories," Bobby appealed, interrupting himself. "I'm full of it, you see, and when people are so good, and listen--" He stopped, in a confusion which is not his least attractive manner.
From down the table came a quick murmur of voices. I saw more than one glance halt at the crutch on the back of the soldier's chair.
"Thank you. I'd really like to tell about this man. It's interesting, psychologically to me," he went on, smiling contentedly. He is a lovable chap, my cousin Robert Thornton. "The lad whom I speak of, a French-Canadian from Quebec Province, was my servant, my batman, as the Indian army called them and as we refer to them often now. He was so brainless that I just missed firing him the first day I had him. But John Dudley, my brother-in-law and lieutenant, wanted me to give him a chance, and also there was something in his manner when I gave him orders which attracted me. He appeared to have a pleasure in serving, and an ideal of duty. Dudley had used him as a guide, and the man had a dog-like devotion to 'the lieutenant' which counted with me. Also he didn't talk. I think he knew only four words. I flung orders at him and there would be first a shock of excitement, then a second of tense anxiety, then a radiant smile and the four words: 'C'est bien, Mon Capitaine.' I was captain then."
At that point I dropped my knife and fork and stared at my cousin. He went on.
"'C'est bien, Mon Capitaine.' That was the slogan. And when the process was accomplished, off he would trot, eager to do my will. He was powerful and well-built, but he had the oddest manner of locomotion ever I saw, a trot like--like a Ford car. I discovered pretty soon that the poor wretch was a born coward. I've seen him start at the distant sound of guns long before we got near the front, and he was nervous at going out alone at night about the camp. The men ragged him, but he was such a friendly rascal and so willing to take over others' work that he got along with a fraction of the persecution most of his sort would have had. I wondered sometimes what would happen to the poor little devil when actual fighting came. Would it be 'C'est bien, Mon Capitaine,' at the order to go over the top, or would the terrible force of fear be too much for him and land him at last with his back to a wall and a firing squad in front--a deserter? Meantime he improved and I got dependent on his radiant good will. Being John Dudley's brother-in-law sanctified me with him, and nothing was too much trouble if I'd give him a chance sometimes to clean John's boots. I have a man now who shows no ecstacy at being ordered to do my jobs, and I don't like him.
"We were moved up towards the front, and, though Mr. Winston Churchill has made a row about the O.S.--the officers' servants who are removed from the firing line, I know that a large proportion of them do their share in the trenches. I saw to it that mine did.
"One night there was a digging expedition. An advance trench was to be made in No Man's Land about a hundred and fifty yards from the Germans. I was in command of the covering party of thirty-five men; I was a captain. We, of course, went out ahead. Beaurame was in the party. It was his first fighting. We had rifles, with bayonets, and bombs, and a couple of Lewis guns. We came up to the trenches by a road, then went into the zigzag communication trenches up to the front, the fire-trench. Then, very cautiously, over the top into No Man's Land. It was nervous work, for at any second they might discover us and open fire. It suited us all to be as quiet as human men could be, and when once in a while a star-shell, a Very light, was sent up from the German lines we froze in our tracks till the white glare died out.
"The party had been digging for perhaps an hour when hell broke loose. They'd seen us. All about was a storm of machine-gun and rifle bullets, and we dropped on our faces, the diggers in their trench--pretty shallow it was. As for the covering party, we simply took our medicine. And then the shrapnel joined the music. Word was passed to get back to the trenches, and we started promptly. We stooped low as we ran over No Man's Land, but there were plenty of casualties. I got mine in the foot, but not the wound which rung in this--" Thornton nodded his head at the crutches with a smile. "It was from a bit of shrapnel just as I made the trench, and as I fell in I caught at the sand bags and whirled about facing out over No Man's Land; as I whirled I saw, close by, Beaurame's face in a shaft of light. I don't know why I made conversation at that moment--I did. I said:
"When did you get back?"
And his answer came as if clicked on a typewriter. "Me, I stayed, Mon Capitaine. It had an air too dangerous, out there."
I stared in a white rage. You'll imagine--one of my men to dare tell me that! And at that second, simultaneously, came the flare of a shell star and a shout of a man struck down, and I knew the voice--John Dudley. He was out there, the tail end of the party, wounded. I saw him as he fell, on the farther side of the new trench. Of course, one's instinct was to dash back and bring him in, and I started. And I found my foot gone--I couldn't walk. Quicker than I can tell it I turned to Beaurame, the coward, who'd been afraid to go over the top, and I said in French, because, though I hadn't time to think it out, I yet realized that it would get to him faster so--I said:
"Get over there, you deserter. Save the lieutenant--Lieutenant Dudley. Go."
For one instant I thought it was no good and I was due to have him shot, if we both lived through the night. And then--I never in my life saw such a face of abject fear as the one he turned first to me and then across that horror of No Man's Land. The whites of his eyes showed, it seemed, an eighth of an inch above the irises; his black eyebrows were half way up his forehead, and his teeth, luxuriously upholstered with fillings, shone white and gold in the unearthly light. It was such a mad terror as I'd never seen before, and never since. And into it I, mad too with the thought of my sister if I let young John Dudley die before my eyes--I bombed again the order to go out and bring in Dudley. I remember the fading and coming expressions on that Frenchman's face like the changes on a moving picture film. I suppose it was half a minute. And here was the coward face gazing into mine, transfigured into the face of a man who cared about another man more than himself--a common man whose one high quality was love.
"C'est bien, Mon Capitaine," Beaurame spoke, through still clicking teeth, and with his regulation smile of good will he had sprung over the parapet in one lithe movement, and I saw him crouching, trotting that absurd, powerful fast trot through the lane in our barbed wire, like lightning, to the shallow new trench, to Dudley. I saw him--for the Germans had the stretch lighted--I saw the man pick up my brother-in-law and toss him over his shoulders and start trotting back. Then I saw him fall, both of them fall, and I knew that he'd stopped a bullet. And then, as I groaned, somehow Beaurame was on his feet again. I expected, that he'd bolt for cover, but he didn't. He bent over deliberately as if he had been a fearless hero--and maybe he was--and he picked up Dudley again and started on, laboring, this time in walking. He was hit badly. But he made the trench; he brought in Dudley.
Then such a howl of hurrahs greeted him from the men who watched the rescue as poor little Aristophe Beaurame--"
"Ah!" I interjected, and Bobby turned and stared--"as the poor little scared rat had not dreamed, or had any right to dream would ever greet his conduct on earth. He dropped Dudley at my feet and turned with his flabby mouth open and his great stupid eyes like saucers, towards the men who rushed to shake his hand and throw at him words of admiration that choked them to get out. And then he keeled over. So you see. It was an equal chance at one second, whether a man should be shot for a deserter or--win the Victoria Cross."
"What!" I shouted at my guest. "What! Not the Victoria Cross! Not Aristophe!"
Bobby looked at me in surprise. "You're a great claque for me," he said. "You seem to take an interest in my hero. Yes, he got it. He was badly hurt. One hand nearly gone and a wound in his side. I was lucky enough to be in London on a day three months later, and to be present at the ceremony, when the young French-Canadian, spoiled for a soldier, but splendid stuff now for a hero, stood out in the open before the troops in front of Buckingham Palace and King George pinned the V.C. on his breast. They say that he's back in his village, and the whole show. I hear that he tells over and over the story of his heroism and the rescue of 'Mon Lieutenant.' to never failing audiences. Of course, John is looking after him, for the hand which John saved was the hand that was shot to pieces in saving John, and the Tin Lizzie can never make his living with that hand again. A deserter, a coward--decorated by the King with the Victoria Cross! Queer things happen in war!" There was a stir, a murmur as of voices, of questions beginning, but Bobby was not quite through.
"War takes the best of the best men, and the best of the cheapest, and transfigures both. War doesn't need heroes for heroism. She pins it on anywhere if there's one spot of greatness in a character. War does strange things with humanity," said Bobby.
And I, gasping, broke out crudely in three words: "Our Tin Lizzie!" I said, and nobody knew in the least what I meant, or with what memories I said it.