Of Water and the Spirit

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embellishment

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BY MARGARET PRESCOTT MONTAGUE

Atlantic Narratives

I WANT to tell you—I must tell you all about it.

With a kind of grave finality, the little woman in the deck chair next to mine snapped together the collapsible drinking-cup with which she had been playing, and sat up, laying a small eager hand on my arm. It was as if her groping thoughts had suddenly pushed open a door into action. I wondered if she guessed that I had been peeping at her from under dropped lids.

She had the colorless make-up of a small middle-aged mouse, but her expression was amazing. It startled and arrested one. All the old lines of the face were set to small ambitions and sordid desires, but the look which should have accompanied these lines was clean gone—wiped into something big and still and simple—and her manner was that of an earnest child.

‘I was in Belgium when it commenced,’ she began. ‘But I guess I better go back and tell it all right from the beginning,’ she broke off.

‘Please do,’ I begged.

I did my best to speak naturally, but my voice seemed to break some spell, for her face blurred suddenly to self-consciousness.

‘I—I reckon I ought to apologize for speaking to a stranger,’ she stammered primly. And now her words exactly matched all the old small lines of her face. It was as if her little self, aware of something big and overwhelming that threatened to sweep her out of her depth, made a desperate clutch at conventionality.

‘But I want to hear,’ I protested eagerly. ‘Please tell me.’

She must have seen that I was in earnest, for the little conventional self disappeared at that, and she answered simply, ‘And I want to tell you—it seems like I’ve just got to tell you.’

It was September, 1914. We homing Americans were churning through an extraordinarily blue ocean toward New York and peace, while back there, just over our shoulders, a mad world was running red.

‘It was like bein’ torn all to pieces and put together again different,’ she said. ‘But I’ll go back like I said, and start right from the beginning.’
For a moment she was silent, staring thoughtfully down at the cheap little metal cup, screwing the rings softly round and round, and drawing, as it were, inspiration from the sight of it.
I come from Johnson’s Falls,’ she began at length. ‘You wouldn’t know where that is. It’s just a little place down in West Virginia, but it’s right close to the Virginia state line, and we have some mighty nice people in town. Why,’ she exclaimed, ‘I reckon we have some of the very best blood in the South there! But—but that isn’t what I set out to tell you,’ she caught herself up.
She fell into such a prolonged silence, turning the little cup, and looking at it, that at last I ventured a question to start her again.

And I suppose,’ I said, ‘you belong to one of the oldest families there.’
I was sorry as soon as I had said it.

‘No, I don’t,’ she answered simply, looking straight up at me. ‘That was how it all commenced. My father kept the livery stable. But of course it wouldn’t matter—keepin’ a livery, I mean—if your family was all right. Jeff Randolph kept the grocery. Being a Randolph, of course he could. But my name’s Smithson—Sadie Virginia Smithson—and my grandfather was a carpenter. I’m a dressmaker myself. That’s the reason they didn’t elect me to the Laurel Literary Society.’ She paused a moment. ‘I reckon you wouldn’t understand about the Laurel Literary Society?’ she questioned a trifle wistfully.

‘Perhaps not,’ I admitted.

‘Well, it’s a literary society, of course. The members read papers, and all like that, but it’s a heap more’n that. Belonging to it kind of marks a person out in Johnson’s Falls and gives ’em the—the—well, I reckon you’d call it the entray to all the best homes in town. If you don’t belong—well, I reckon it came kinder harder on me, not belonging, than it did on some of the others. Why, I’d have said the girls that started it were my very best friends. We’d played together as children, and I called ’em all by their first names, and they knew I was just as smart, an’ liked readin’ an’ all that just as well as any of ’em did.

So when I wasn’t asked to join—well, it just seemed to knock me right out. I wasn’t but nineteen then, an’ when you’re young things hurt more, I reckon. Anyhow the slight of it got just fixed in my mind, an’ I made a kind of a vow that I’d belong to that society some day if I died for it.

And then, after a while it came to me, maybe if I could just save money enough to go abroad, they’d ask me to read a paper before the society when I got back, ’cause mighty few people have traveled much from our town.—Well,’ she looked thoughtfully away at the blue water, many an’ many a night I’ve put myself to sleep thinking how it would be when I read that paper. You know, when you’re young and kind of unhappy and slighted, how you make up things to sort of comfort yourself?’

I nodded.

‘Well, I could just see the whole thing, me standing there reading an’ all, and when I’d get through I could almost hear the applause. They’d some of ’em have on gloves, you know, so it would sound softer an’ more genteel-like than just common bare-hand clapping. Well, it takes time for a country dressmaker to save. It took me twenty years. I did have most enough once, but then my sister was taken sick an’ what I’d saved had to go for her. But I just gritted my teeth an’ commenced again, and at last this spring I had enough, an’ I joined a party and went. Ours wasn’t a regular party. It was just a professor an’ his wife who were goin’ anyhow, an’ would take a couple of ladies with them, so there were just the four of us. Well, we traveled for a month or more, an’ you better b’lieve I stretched my eyes to see all there was to see. An’ then, all at once, the world just tipped itself right over an’ went crazy.

‘We were in Brussels when it came. The professor was sure everything would quiet down in a little bit, an’ he said we’d better stay right there. And anyhow, it wasn’t easy to get away. It was all just awful, with one country after another slipping in.

Only things came so quick a person didn’t hardly have time to catch their breath an’ think “how awful,” ‘fore something worse was jumping right on top of it. Well, we stayed and stayed, till at last the Germans came. It certainly was a sight to see ’em—but I ain’t goin’ to tell about that, I’m just goin’ to skip right along to what I set out to tell.

‘The professor and his wife had left their only child, a mighty sickly little thing, with her grandmother in Paris, and when things got so bad they were pretty near distracted to get to her. Well, one morning the professor came in and told us he’d run across a young American, a Mr. Grenville, who was being sent to Paris on some special diplomatic business. He had a big automobile, and he thought maybe he could get it fixed to take us all, too. It looked like a mighty crazy thing to do, but there wasn’t any holdin’ the professor an’ his wife on account of their child, and me and the other lady, we was afraid to be left behind.

Well, after a lot of runnin’ around from one official to another, they did finally get it all fixed for us to go, an’ the next day we started out with an American flag on the front of our car. Of course we were stopped a lot of times and all our papers gone through and everything, but each time they let us go on account of Mr. Grenville bein’ a United States official. We’d started early, an’ by noon we’d come a right smart piece, an’ about that time we began to hear firing on in front. Did you ever hear them big guns?’ she broke off to ask, her childlike eyes questioning me.

I shook my head.

‘Well, you needn’t never want to hear ’em,’ she said. ‘When they commenced we all kind of looked at one another, an’ I reckon we was all scared. Anyhow, I know I was. Why, at home I’m ‘fraid of a thunderstorm. But still we kept on. The sound of the firin’ got louder an’ louder, but it was never very close, and along late in the afternoon it sort of died off, an’ we commenced to draw breath again, and think everything was goin’ to be all right. I’m ‘most sure now we must have missed the way, for just about that time we ran upon a piece of road that was all tore up.

There were big holes in it from the shells, an’ those tall poplars alongside were all snapped off, an’ their branches stripped down like a child peels a switch. You could smell the fresh sap like you can in lumber camps at home. Well, we had to slow up an’ kind of pick our way, and on round the very next turn we ran right up on them.’

‘On the fighting!’ I gasped.

‘No—no; the fightin’ was all over then. Just for a flash, comin’ on ’em so quick like, I didn’t know what they were. They looked like little sprawled brown heaps. But in the second I was wonderin’, one of ’em flung up an arm and groaned.’

‘How awful!’ I cried aghast.

‘Yes,’ she assented simply, ‘it certainly was awful. My words ain’t big enough to tell you how awful. Runnin’ up on ’em so unexpected like that, kind of cut my breath right off an’ choked me. There they were, layin’ all about acrost the road, an’ in a wheat-field alongside, with the sun just shining down like it was any kind of a summer day.

A good many of ’em were dead, but there were a plenty that weren’t. They blocked the road so we had to stop, an’ right where we stopped there was a young man layin’ flung over on his back. He’d snatched his shirt open at the breast, an’ the blood had all dripped down into the dust of the road. He opened his eyes, an’ stared right up in my face, an’ cried, “Water, for God’s sake!” He said it over an’ over in the awfullest voice, an’ like it was one word—”Water-for-God’s-sake, water-for-God’s-sake”—like that.

I had this little drinkin’ cup, an’ there was a good-sized creek just a piece across the field, so I grabbed my hand-bag an’ jumped out. Well, at that all of ’em in the car commenced to holler an’ scream at me to get back, that we couldn’t stop—it wouldn’t be safe—an’ we couldn’t do anything, an’ anyhow the stretcher-bearers would be along d’rectly. But I just said, “He wants water, an’ I’ve got my cup here, an’ there’s the branch, an’ anyhow,” I says, “he looks kind of like my sister’s oldest boy,” an’ with that I started on to the creek.

‘Well, the professor an’ Mr. Grenville jumped out of the car an’ came runnin’ after me, but I just turned ’round an’ looked at ’em. “You all go on,” I says.

“He asked me for water for God’s sake, an’ if you try to put me back in that car I’ll fight you like a wildcat.” I never did anything like that,—fightin’, I mean,’—she broke off to explain earnestly, ‘but I would have, an’ I reckon they knew it. The professor tried to argue. “You’ll be a raving maniac if you stay here,” he says. “Well,” I says, “look what’s here now—what difference does it make if I am?” Somehow that was the way I felt. Everything was so awful it didn’t seem to matter whether anything awful happened to me or not.

So I just kept on to the creek, and Mr. Grenville said, “For Heaven’s sake, let her stay if she can do anything. I wish to God I could stay too.” But he couldn’t, he was carryin’ some mighty important dispatches that he just had to get on with. An’ then he calls out to me, “Good luck and God bless you, Miss Smithson!” An’ when I looked back he was standin’ with his hat off. He was a mighty nice young man. But all the time the other ladies in the car was screamin’ an’ hollerin’ for them to come on, so they had to go.’

‘They left you all alone!’ I cried.

‘They had to,’ she returned. ‘Mr. Grenville had to get on with his dispatches, an’ it was the last chance the professor an’ his wife had of gettin’ through to their child. An’ the other lady—Well, she couldn’t do nothin’ but scream anyhow. By the time I was comin’ back from the creek the car was just pullin’ out of sight. Somehow, to see it go like that gave me a kind of funny feelin’. I was scared, I reckon, but all the same I felt kind of still too. It seemed like for the last few weeks I’d been hustled along in a wild kind of a torrent, but now I’d touched bottom an’ got my feet under me. I reckon a woman does touch bottom when there’s anything she can do—anyhow, one raised to work like I’ve been does.

But, oh, my Lord!’ she cried suddenly, dropping her face to her hands, ‘I wish I could keep from seein’ it all still—an’ hearin’ it too! Did you ever hear a man scream?’ she demanded. ‘Not just groan, but shriek, an’ scream?’
‘In hospitals,’ I said, uncertainly, ‘I’ve heard people screaming when they were coming out of ether.’

She shook her head. ‘That’s different. You knew there were people, nurses and doctors, to do things for ’em; but out there there wasn’t anything but the trampled wheat, an’ the big empty sky. There was plenty of ’em who wanted water, an’ begged an’ cried for it; but I just said, “I’ll be back to you all presently,” an’ went on to the first one.

He was kind of delirious, but he could drink the water, an’ was mighty glad to get it. I brushed the flies all away, an’ spread a clean handkerchief over his wound,—he was too far gone to try an’ do anything else for him,—an’ went on back to the creek. Water, that was the main thing they wanted. The most of ’em that could be were bandaged already. Some of the medical outfit had been around an’ got ’em tied up, but after that, I reckon the fightin’ must of changed an’ cut ’em off from their friends, for the stretcher-bearers didn’t come, an’ didn’t come.

‘It was all so strange an’ kind of shut away there, like destruction had lit for a spell an’ then flown on to the next place. The wheat was all laid over an’ tramped, and lumpy with khaki bodies, an’ with caps an’ guns an’ things flung around in it, an’ the red sun sailin’ down an’ down in the West, an’ every here an’ there awful splatters of blood in the wheat. But I didn’t have time to look an’ think too much—an’ it was mighty lucky I didn’t have. They were all English an’ had run upon a German battery an’ been shot to pieces ‘fore they hardly knew what was happenin.’ I guess some of ’em must have got away, but there was a plenty that didn’t. They’d been layin’ there since dawn, an’—an’ they were hungry—’ her voice broke. ‘An’ I didn’t have anything to give ’em,’ she whispered.

‘They say after a while you get kind of numb to things,’ she went on presently, with her grave simplicity. ‘I don’t know how that is, but I know the things I saw made me stop every now an’ then down by the creek out of sight, an’ just wring an’ wring my hands together in a kind of rage of pity. Once, goin’ through the wheat, I tramped on something soft, an’ when I looked, it was—it was just a piece of a man. I thought I’d lay right down then an’ die, but I says to myself, “They want water, they want water”—an’ that way I kind of drove myself on. But all the time I could see my heart under my waist just jumpin’ up an’ down, like it was fightin’ to jump out an’ run away. An’ then another time—’

But she broke off. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I won’t tell about that. It’s so peaceful here with that blue water an’ sunshine an’ all, I reckon I oughtn’t to tell what it’s like underneath when Hell takes the lid off. An’ maybe some day the Lord’ll let me forget.

‘But it’s funny,’ she went on again presently, ‘how your mind grabs ahold of any foolish thing to steady you.’ She paused, staring down at the little cup as though she drew remembrance from it. ‘I recollect as I went back and forth, back and forth, weaving out paths through the wheat, a silly song that we used to sing to a game at school kept runnin’ in my head:—
I don’t want none of your weevily wheat,
An’ I don’t want none of your barley;
An’ I don’t want none of your weevily wheat
To bake a cake for Charley.

‘I was mighty glad it did. For all it was so silly, it kept me from flyin’ right off the handle. An’ so I kept on an’ on, carryin’ ’em water. Some of the men thought it was funny I should be there, an’ they wanted to talk an’ ask me questions; but the most of ’em were sufferin’ too bad to care, an’ some of ’em were busy goin’ along into the next world, an’ were done with bein’ surprised over anything in this. Most of ’em called me “Nurse” or “Sister,” an’ some way

I liked to have ’em do it. Some of ’em certainly were brave, too. Why, I saw one young fella jump straight up to his feet an’ fling his arms out wide, an’ holler right up at the sky, “Are we downhearted?—No!” an’ pitch over dead. You know,’ she paused to explain simply, her extraordinarily childlike eyes lifted to mine for understanding and sympathy, ‘it just seems to snatch the heart right out of you to see a person stand up to death like that—’specially when they’re so young, like that little fella.’

‘Of course,’ she went on after a moment, ‘I didn’t just give ’em water. I’d do any other little thing I could besides. An’ every time I could do anything, I certainly was glad. Doing things seemed to ease up a little that terrible rage of pity I felt. I took my skirt off an ‘rolled it up for a pillow for a little fella who couldn’t move an’ was layin’ with his head in a kind of a sink-hole. He tried to thank me but he couldn’t,—he just sobbed,—but he caught ahold of my hand an’ kissed it. That made me cry. It was so sort of young an’ pretty of him. After that I went on for a spell with the tears just pourin’ down my cheeks. But presently I found the one who couldn’t drink the water, an’ I quit cryin’ then. My tears weren’t big enough; only God’s would have been big enough for that.

‘The man’s face was all gone,—eyes, mouth, everything,—an’ still he was alive. He must have heard me an’ known somebody was there, for he commenced to scream an’ moan, tryin’ to say things down in his throat, an’ to reach out his hands an’ flop about—O my God! It was like a chicken with its head off! I thought I’d have to run. But I didn’t. I just sort of fell down beside him, an’ caught ahold of his hands, an’ patted them an’ talked to him like you do to a child in a nightmare. I don’t know what I said at first. Just a crazy jumble of pity, I reckon; but after a little bit I found I was prayin’. I know I needed it, an’ it seemed to help him too, for after a little bit, he stopped that awful tryin’ to speak down in his throat, an’ lay still just grippin’ my hands. I was so crazy I couldn’t think of a thing to say but “God bless us an’ keep us an’ make his face to shine upon us an’ be merciful unto us.” An’ I just said that over an’ over.

‘I guess it wasn’t the words that he wanted, it was the feelin’ of havin’ God there in all that awful dark and blood, an’ some human bein’ beside him who was sorry.

Anyhow, every time I’d stop he’d snatch at my wrists so hard it would hurt; look.’ She broke off to push up her gray sleeve, and there on her thin wrist, still vividly black and blue, were the bruised prints of fingers. ‘But I was glad to be hurt—I wanted to be hurt. I wanted to have a share in all the sufferin’. It just seemed like my heart would break. An’,’ she added with great simplicity, ‘I reckon that’s just what it did do, for I know I broke through into something bigger than I ever had been.

‘Well, after a while, God did have mercy on that poor soul, for he quit pullin’ at my hands, and began to die, an’ when I came ’round again to him he was gone. But that got me started, an’ I left off sayin’ that foolishness about the weevily wheat, an’ said the little prayer instead. I said it to myself first, but after a little bit, I found I was sayin’ it out loud. I don’t know why, but it seemed like I had to say it every time I gave one of ’em water. Just “God bless us an’ keep us an’ make his face to shine upon us and be merciful unto us.” It was somehow like a child’s game—like havin’ to touch every tree-box goin’ along the street, or steppin’ over every crack.

Each one of ’em had to have the water an’ the little prayer, an’ then on to the next, or back down to the creek for more. Most of ’em didn’t seem to notice, but some of ’em laughed, an’ some stared like I was crazy,—an’ maybe I was a little,—an’ again some of ’em were glad of it.

‘So I kep’ on an’ on, an’ the sun went down, an’ the dark came, an’ it seemed like a kind of a lid had shut us away from all the world. It wasn’t right dark, for the stars were shinin’. It was about that time that I found the little officer. He was dyin’, off in the wheat all to himself, an’ he got me to take down some messages for his folks. I wrote ’em in my diary. I had a pocket flashlight in my bag, an’ it made a round eye of light that stared out at every word I wrote. They were the simplest kind of words. Just love, love to mother, and love to father, and Snippy and Peg, an’ good-bye to ’em all, an’ how he was glad to die for England. But they look mighty strange jumpin’ out there in my diary alongside of travel notes about Brussels. It’s like something big an’ terrible had smashed its fist right through all the little fancy things.

‘But it was funny,’ she went on after a minute, ‘how sort of like children so many of the men were, so trusting an’ helpless. There was one little fella always said the same thing to me every time I came ’round. “They’ll sure be around for us soon now, won’t they, sister?” he’d say. An’ I’d always answer,

“Oh, yes, just in a little bit now.” An’ he’d settle back again, so trusting an’ satisfied, an’ like I really knew. That was the way they all seemed to me—just children. Even the ones that cursed an’ screamed at me. An’ another funny thing,’ she added lifting her grave child’s eyes to mine: ‘I’ve never been married—never known what it was to have children—but that night all those men were my children, even the biggest an’ roughest of ’em. I felt ’em all here’—She held her hands tight against her breast. ‘An’ I b’lieve I would have died for any one of ’em. I reckon bein’ so crazy with pity had stretched me up out of bein’ a scary old maid into bein’ a mother.

‘I recollect there was two loose horses gallopin’ about. They were wild with fear, an’ they’d gallop as hard as ever they could in one direction, an’ then they’d wheel ’round an’ come to a stand with their heads up, an’ their tails cocked, an’ nicker, an’ snort over what they smelt, an’ then take out again. Well, once they came chargin’ right down on us, an’ I thought sure they were goin’ right over the men. I never stopped to think: I ran straight out in front of ’em wavin’ my arms an’ hollerin’. They just missed gallopin’ right over me. But I didn’t care; I b’lieve I’d almost have been glad. It was like I said—I wanted to be hurt too. That was because it was all so lonesome for ’em.

Death an’ sufferin’ is a lonesome thing,’ she stated gravely. ‘When they’d scream, I felt like I’d tear my heart out to help ’em. But all I could do was just to stand on the outside like, an’ watch ’em sufferin’ an’ maybe dryin’ inside there all alone. That’s why it seemed like bein’ hurt too would make it easier.

‘Well, along late in the night, the guns broke out again awful loud, an’ presently off against the sky I saw red streaks of flame go up in two places, an’ I knew they were towns on fire. I just stopped still an’ looked, an’ thought what it was like with the folks scurryin’ ’round like rats, an’ the fire an’ the shells rainin’ down on ’em. “That’s Hell—right over there,” I says out loud to myself, an’ then I went on down to the creek faster than ever.

Maybe I was gettin’ kind of lightheaded then, an’ God knows it was enough to make anybody so; anyhow, I felt like I had to hold Hell back. It was loose right over there, an’ the only thing that held it off was the cup of water an’ the little prayer. So I kept on back an’ forth, back an’ forth from the creek, faster an’ faster. I thought if I missed one of ’em it would let Hell in on all the rest, so I kept on an’ on. The guns were boomin’, an’ the flames goin’ up into the sky, an’ all Hell was loose, but the little prayer an’ the cup of water was holdin’ it back. An’ then at last, when it commenced to freshen for dawn, I knew I’d won.’

She drew a deep breath, and paused, looking up at me with clear, far-away eyes.

‘That was because I knew He was there,’ she said.

‘He?’ I questioned, awestruck by her tone.

She nodded. ‘Yes, God,’ she answered simply. ‘An’ after that, that terrible lonesomeness melted all away. I knew that though I had to stand outside an’ see ’em suffer, He was inside there with ’em—closer to ’em even than they was to themselves. So I knew it wasn’t really lonesome for ’em, even if they were sufferin’ an’ dyin’.

An’ I’m right sure that a good many of ’em got to know that, too—anyhow, the faces of some of the ones that had died looked that way when I saw ’em in the mornin’. Maybe it was because I cared so much myself that I kind of broke through into knowin’ how much more God cared. Folks always talk like He was a father ‘way off in the sky, but I got to know that night that what was really God was something big an’ close right in your own heart, that was a heap more like a big mother.

‘An’ it was all bigger an’ sort of simpler than I’d ever thought it would be. Right over there was Hell an’ big guns, an’ men killin’ each other, but here where we were, were just stars overhead, an’ folks that you could do things for, an’ God.

I reckon that’s the way,’ she said with her grave simplicity, ‘when things get too awful you suffer through to God, an’ He turns you back to the simplest things—just the little prayer, an’ the cup of water for men that were like sick children.

This is the cup,’ she added, holding it out for my inspection. ‘An’—an’ that’s all, I reckon,’ she concluded. ‘When daylight came, the stretcher-bearers did get through to us. There was a sort of doctor officer with them, an’ I never in my life saw any one look so tired.

“Who are you, an’ what in thunder are you doing here?” he stormed out at me—only I don’t say it as strong as he did.

‘I reckon I must have looked like a wild woman. I had lost my hat and my hair was all falling down, an’ I only had on my short alpaca underskirt, ’cause I’d taken off my dress skirt to make a pillow like I said; but I just stood right up in the midst of all those poor bodies, an’ says, “I’m Miss Smithson—Sadie Virginia Smithson—an’ I’ve been holdin’ Hell back all night.”
‘I knew I was talkin’ crazy but I didn’t care—like the way you do comin’ out of ether.

‘He stared at me for a spell, an’ then he says, kind of funny, “Well, Miss Sadie Virginia, I’m glad you held some of it back, for everybody else in the world was letting it loose last night.”

‘He was mighty kind to me, though, an’ helped get me to one of the base hospitals, an’ from there over to England. But I don’t know what happened to the professor an’ his party.’

‘Well,’ I ventured after a long pause, and not knowing quite what to say, ‘the Laurel Literary Society will be glad enough to have you belong to it now.’

She flashed bolt upright at that, her eyes staring at me.

‘But—but you don’t understand,’ she cried breathlessly. ‘I’ve been face to face with war an’ death an’ Hell an’ God,—I’ve been born again,—do you reckon any of them little old things matter now?’

I was stunned by the white look of her face.
‘What does matter—now?’ I whispered at last.

‘Nothin’,’ she answered, ‘nothin’ but God an’ love an’ doin’ things for folks.

That was why I had to tell you.’