That Sunday afternoon we sat with the Swedish girl in the big cafe in Valencia. We had vermouth in thick goblets, each with a cube of honey-combed gray ice in it. The waiter was so proud of the ice that he could hardly bear to leave the glasses on the table, and thus part from it forever. He went to his duty — all over the room they were clapping their hands and hissing to draw his attention — but he looked back over his shoulder.
It was dark outside, the quick, new dark that leaps down without dusk on the day; but, because there were no lights in the streets, it seemed as set and as old as midnight.So you wondered that all the babies were still up. There were babies everywhere in the cafe, babies serious without solemnity and interested in a tolerant way in their surroundings.
At the table next ours, there was a notably small one; maybe six months old. Its father, a little man in a big uniform that dragged his shoulders down, held it carefully on his knee. It was doing nothing whatever, yet he and his thin young wife, whose belly was already big again under her sleazy dress, sat watching it in a sort of ecstasy of admiration, while their coffee cooled in front of them. The baby was in Sunday white; its dress was patched so delicately that you would have thought the fabric whole had not the patches varied in their shades of whiteness. In its hair was a bow of new blue ribbon, tied with absolute balance of loops and ends. The ribbon was of no use; there was not enough hair to require restraint. The bow was sheerly an adornment, a calculated bit of dash.
“Oh, for God’s sake, stop that!” I said to myself. “All right, so it’s got a piece of blue ribbon on its hair. All right, so its mother went without eating so it could look pretty when its father came home on leave. All right, so it’s her business, and none of yours.All right, so what have you got to cry about?”
The big, dim room was crowded and lively. That morning there had been a bombing from the air, the more horrible for broad daylight. But nobody in the cafe sat tense and strained, nobody desperately forced forgetfulness. They drank coffee or bottled lemonade, in the pleasant, earned ease of Sunday afternoon, chatting of small, gay matters, all talking at once, all hearing and answering.
There were many soldiers in the room, in what appeared to be the uniforms of twenty different armies until you saw that the variety lay in the differing ways the cloth had worn or faded. Only a few of them had been wounded; were and there you saw one stepping gingerly, leaning on a crutch or two canes, but so far on toward recovery that his face had color. There were many men, too, in civilian clothes — some of them soldiers home on leave, some of them governmental workers, some of them anybody’s guess.There were plump, comfortable wives, active with paper fans, and old women as quiet as their grandchildren. There were many pretty girls and some beauties, of whom you did not remark, “There’s a charming Spanish type,” but said, “What a beautiful girl!” The women’s clothes were not new, and their material was too humble ever to have warranted skillful cutting.
“It’s funny,” I said to the Swedish girl, “how when nobody in a place is best dressed, you don’t notice that everybody isn’t.”
“Please?” the Swedish girl said.
No one, save an occasional soldier, wore a hat. When we had first come toValencia, I lived in a state of puzzled pain as to why everybody on the streets laughed at me. It was not because “West End Avenue” was writ across my face as if left there by a customs officer’s chalked scrawl. They like Americans in Valencia, where they have seen good ones — the doctors who left their practices and came to help, the calm young nurses, the men of the International Brigade. But when I walked forth, men and women courteously laid their hands across their splitting faces and little children, too innocent for dissembling, doubled with glee and pointed and cried, “OLE!” Then, pretty late, I made my discovery, and left my hat off; and there was laughter no longer. It was not one of those comic hats, either; it was just a hat.
The cafe filled to overflow, and I left our table to speak to a friend across the room. When I came back to the table, six soldiers were sitting there. They were crowded in, and I scraped past them to my chair. They looked tired and dusty and little, the way that the newly dead look little, and the first things you saw about them were the tendons in their necks. I felt like a prize sow.
They were all in conversation with the Swedish girl. She has Spanish, French,German, anything in Scandinavian, Italian, and English. When she has a moment for regret, she sighs that her Dutch is so rusty she can no longer speak it, only read it, and the same is true of her Romanian.
They had told her, she told us, that they were at the end of forty-eight hours leave from the trenches, and, for their holiday, they had all pooled their money for cigarettes, and something had gone wrong, and the cigarettes had never come through to them. I had a pack of American cigarettes — in Spain rubies are as nothing to them — and I brought it out, and by nods and smiles and a sort of breast stroke, made it understood thatI was offering it to those six men yearning for tobacco. When they saw what I meant, each one of them rose and shook my hand. Darling of me to share my cigarettes with them on their way back to the trenches. Little Lady Bountiful. The prize sow.
Each one lit his cigarette with a contrivance of yellow rope that stank when a fire and was also used, the Swedish girl translated, for igniting grenades. Each one received what he had ordered, a glass of coffee, and each one murmured appreciatively over the tiny cornucopia of coarse sugar that accompanied it. Then they talked.
They talked through the Swedish girl, but they did to us that thing we all do when we speak our own language to one who has no knowledge of it. They looked us square in the face, and spoke slowly, and pronounced their words with elaborate movements of their lips. Then, as their stories came, they poured them at us so vehemently, so emphatically that they were sure we must understand. They were so convinced we would understand that we were ashamed for not understanding.
But the Swedish girl told us. They were all farmers and farmers’ sons, from a district so poor that you try not to remember there is that kind of poverty. Their village was next that one where the old men and the sick men and the women and children had gone, on a holiday, to the bullring; and the planes had come over and dropped bombs on the bullring, and the old men and the sick men and the women and the children were more than two hundred.
They had all, the six of them, been in the war for over a year, and most of that time they had been in the trenches. Four of them were married. One had one child, two had three children, one had five. They had not had word from their families since they had left for the front. There had been no communication; two of them had learned to write from men fighting next them in the trench, but they had not dared to write home.They belonged to a union, and union men, of course, are put to death if taken. The village where their families lived had been captured, and if your wife gets a letter from a union man, who knows but they’ll shoot her for the connection?
They told about how they had not heard from their families for more than a year.They did not tell it gallantly or whimsically or stoically. They told it as if — Well, look.You have been in the trenches, fighting, for a year. You have heard nothing of your wife and your children. They do not know if you are dead or alive or blinded. You do not know where they are, or if they are. You must talk to somebody. That is the way they told about it.
One of them, some six months before, had heard of his wife and his three children — they had such beautiful eyes, he said — from a brother-in-law in France. They were all alive then, he was told, and had a bowl of beans a day. But his wife had not complained of the food, he heard. What had troubled her was that she had no thread to mend the children’s ragged clothes. So that troubled him, too.
“She has no thread,” he kept telling us. “My wife has no thread to mend with. No thread.”
We sat there, and listened to what the Swedish girl told us they were saying.Suddenly one of them looked at the clock, and then there was excitement. They jumped up, as a man, and there were calls for the waiter and rapid talk with him, and each of them shook the hand of each of us. We went through more swimming motions to explain to them that they were to take the rest of the cigarettes — fourteen cigarettes forsix soldiers to take to war — and then they shook our hands again. Then all of said “Salud!” as many times as could be for six of them and three of us, and then they filed out of the cafe, the six of them, tired and dusty and little, as men of a mighty horde are little.
Only the Swedish girl talked, after they had gone. The Swedish girl has been in Spain since the start of the war. She has nursed splintered men, and she has carried stretchers into the trenches and, heavier laden, back to the hospital. She has seen and heard too much to be knocked into silence.
Presently it was time to go, and the Swedish girl raised her hands above her head and clapped them twice together to summon the waiter. He came, but he only shook his head and his hand, and moved away.
The soldiers had paid for our drinks.