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No Flowers by Gordon Arthur Smith


Steve Dempsey was a conspicuously ingenious chief machinist's mate—one of the most ingenious in the Naval Aviation Forces, Foreign Service, and he was ingenious not only with his hands, but with his tongue. That is why I cannot guarantee the veracity of what follows; I can but guarantee that he guaranteed it.

Steve had had a varied and highly coloured career, and I think that the war, or so much of it as he was permitted to see, seemed to him a comparatively tame affair—something all in the year's work. When he was fifteen years old he was conducting his father's public garage in a town not far from Denver; at that age he knew as much about motors as the men who built them, and he had, moreover, the invaluable knack of putting his finger immediately on a piece of erring mechanism and, with the aid of a bit of wire and a pair of pliers, setting it to rights. Given enough wire and a pair of pliers, I believe that he could have built the Eiffel Tower.

Becoming restless in the garage, he determined to make his fortune quickly, and accordingly went out prospecting in the vicinity of the Little Annie mine. He bought himself a small patch of promising ground and he and another fellow shovelled away until they had no money left. So then he took up aviation.

He was one of the pioneers of the flying-men in this country. He used to fly at country fairs in an old ramshackle bus of the Wright model—a thing of sticks and canvas and wires precariously hung together. But he flew it. And he rehabilitated his finances.

When war was declared he enlisted as a gob and was sent on sea duty. He knew, of course, nothing of sea duty, but lack of knowledge of a subject had never daunted him, for he had the faculty of learning things quickly by himself and for himself. His mechanical ability asserting itself, he was made a machinist's mate, second class, and transferred over to the Aviation. When I knew him he had proved so valuable at the various air stations that he had been advanced to chief machinist's mate and was an assistant in the Technical Division at Paris headquarters.

He was a very friendly soul, always respectful enough, even when outspoken, and no more in fear of an admiral than of—well, he would have said than of a marine. During his year of service, you see, he had absorbed most of the navy traditions. He spoke the navy speech like an old-timer, and undoubtedly amplified the regular navy vocabulary with picturesque expressions of his own. Of course he was very profane....

Sunday morning at headquarters was apt to be a slack morning, with not much work to do; but in intervals of idleness one could always be certain of finding something of interest to see or hear in Steve's office. Usually he would be in front of his drafting-board working on a new design for a muffler or a machine-gun turret or a self-starter, or figuring out the possibility of flying through the Arc de Triomphe, which, he claimed could be done with six feet to spare at each wing-tip. This, and climbing the Eiffel Tower on its girders, were two of his pet projects.

On a Sunday in August of 1918 there were assembled around his drafting-board an interested and receptive audience of four—Peters, an ensign attached to the “lighter-than-air” section; Madden, a pilot on his way up from Italy to the Northern Bombing Group; Erskine, a lieutenant in the Operations Division; and Matthews, a chief yeoman.

“Yes,” Dempsey was saying, “I'm beaucoup sorry for these here frawgs. They're just bein' massacred—that's all it is—massacred. And there don't anybody take much notice, either. Say, somebody was tellin' me the other day just how many the French has lost since the beginnin' of the war. Just about one million. I wouldn't believe it, but it's straight. It was a French colonel that was tellin' me out to the Hispano factory day before yesterday, and he'd oughta know because he was through the battle of the Marne and the Soam, and everything.”

“Did he tell you in French?” inquired Ensign Peters, meaningly, for Dempsey's French was admittedly limited.

“Pardon?” said Dempsey, and then, grasping the innuendo: “No, sir, he did not. Why, he talks English as good as you and me. That's another thing about these frawgs—they can all parlez-vous any language. I never yet seen a Frenchie I couldn't talk to yet.”

“Did you ever see anybody you couldn't talk to yet, Steve?” suggested the chief yeoman.

“Here, you, how d'ya get that way? Who was it I seen th' other night out walking in the Boy de Bullone with a skirt? And I guess you wasn't talkin'—why, you was talkin' so fast you had to help out with your hands, just like a frawg.... No, as I say, I feel sorry for these French in more ways than one.”

“Just how do you display that sorrow?” asked Ensign Madden.

Dempsey hesitated an instant, scratched his head, and very carefully drew a line on the tracing-paper in front of him.

“Well, sir,” he said, finally, “I displayed it last Sunday.”

Then he relapsed into silence, and resumed work on the drawing. But as he worked he grinned quietly—a provocative grin which inspired curiosity.

“What did you do last Sunday?” prodded Peters.

The grin widened as Steve glanced up from the board. He laid aside his instruments, tilted back in his chair, and said: “Well, it wasn't very regular, what I done last Sunday, but I'll tell you if you don't have me up before a court.... You remember last Sunday was a swell day? Spring in the air, I guess, and everything, and everybody was out walking like Matthews, here, with a Jane. I 'ain't got a Jane, of course——”

“What!” roared Matthews.

“I 'ain't got a Jane, of course, so I decides to take a little look around all by myself. Well, I goes down the Chomps-Eleezy feelin' pretty good and sorta peppy and lookin' for trouble. I see all them army heroes—the vets and the dentists and the S O S—each with a skirt, and I passes Matthews, here, with his skirt clingin' to him like a cootie.”

“Cut it out, you big stiff,” interposed Matthews.

“Like a cootie,” continued Steve, “and I got sorta de-pressed. So I sez, me for the quiet, unfrequented streets over acrost the river. Well, sir, I was just passin' the Loover—that big museum, or whatever it is—when I see a hearse comin' in the opposite direction. It was a pretty sick-lookin' hearse, too. It had a coupla animals hitched to it that was probably called horses when they was young, and that didn't have a steak minoot left on 'em. But they was all covered with mangy black plumes and tassels and things—you know, the way they rig 'em up when the corpse is takin' his last drive. And there was an old bird sittin' up on the box-seat with a hat like Napoleon One.

“Well, at first it looked to me like it was just the regular frawg funeral, and I didn't pay no special attention, only I give it the salute when I got opposite. Then I see that there weren't no flowers nor tin wreaths on the coffin—except there was one little buncha pinks, and they was a pretty sad-lookin' buncha pinks, too, sir. Then I see that there weren't no procession walkin' along behind—except there was one little old woman all in black and lookin' sorta sick and scared. Yes, sir, there she was walkin' all by herself and lookin' lonelier 'n hell.

“So I sez to myself: 'It's all wrong, Steve, it's all wrong. Here's a poor dead frawg, the only son of his mother and her a widow'—that's Bible stuff, sir—'goin' out to be planted with none of the gang around. It's tough,' I sez. 'I'll say it is.' Well, I told you I didn't have nothin' much to do, so I sez, 'Laffyette, cheeri-o,' and steps up beside the old lady. That makes two mourners, anyhow.

“Well, the old lady give me the once over and seen Mr. Daniels's uniform and the rooster on my sleeve, and I guess decides that I'm eligible to the club. Anyway, she sorta nodded at me and pretty soon begun to snuffle and look for her handkerchief. It wasn't no use, though, for she didn't have any.

“Meanwhile we was crossin' one of them bridges—just crawlin' along like one of the motors had quit and the other was hittin' only on three. If we'd been in the air we'd stalled sure and gone into a tail-spin. All the time I was thinkin' how to say 'Cheer up' to the old dame in French, but all I could think of at first was 'Bravo' and ' Vous-ate tray jolee!' Still it was sorta stupid walkin' along and no conversation, so I guess I musta had an inspiration or something, and I sez, pointing ahead at the coffin, 'Mort avec mon Dieu.' The old lady lost her step at that, because I suppose she was surprised by a Yank speakin' good French, most of 'em relyin', like Matthews here, on the sign language, although I'll say that Matthews gets plenty far enough with that. Why, they're four girls and a widow at home that if they knew how far Matthews was gettin' with the sign language they'd be gray-headed to-day.... Aw, well, Matthews, quit spoilin' this drawin'. Do you wanta get me and Admiral Sims into trouble with the department?”

“Go ahead with your funeral, Steve,” said Lieutenant Erskine—“unless your power of invention has failed you.”

Dempsey looked up with a hurt and innocent expression on his face.

“Oh, lootenant,” he exclaimed, “what I'm tellin' is gospel. It's as true—it's as true as the communikays.”

“All right,” said Erskine, “issue another, then.”

“Well,” Steve continued, “where was I? Oh yes, we was on the bridge and I'd just told the old lady that the dead soldier was in heaven by now.”

“Soldier?” repeated Erskine. “What made you believe he was a soldier?”

“Why, ain't every frawg a soldier now, sir.”

“How did you know, even, that it was a male frog?”

“I'm comin' to that, sir,” replied Steve. “That comes next. You see, once the old lady knew I could parlez-vous with the best of 'em, she continued the conversation and sez, 'Mon pover fees.' Get that? 'Mon pover fees.' Well, that means, translated, 'My poor son.'“

At this revelation of startling linguistic ability Steve paused to receive felicitations. When they were forthcoming he proceeded.

“So, of course, I know then that the corpse is a dead soldier, and I decides to see him through until he's made a safe landing somewhere. Well, just as we was acrost the bridge, the two ex-horses doin' fine on the down grade, I seen a marine standin' on the corner tellin' a buncha girls all about Chateau-Teery. Well, I thought that maybe it 'ud be a good thing if he joined the funeral, because, anyway, the girls could hear all about Chateau-Teery the next marine they saw. So I yell out at him: 'Hey, you! Come and join the navy and see the world!'

“Well, he looks around, and, although I guess he didn't much wanta leave them girls, he decides that he'll come and see what the big game is. So he salutes the corpse and steps in beside me and whispers, 'Say, chief, what's the idea?'

“'Whadd 'ya think, you poor cheese?' I sez. 'D'ya think it's a weddin'? Get in step. We're goin' to bury a French poiloo.'

“'Is that so?' he sez.”

“'Yes, that's so,' I sez. 'Get over acrost on the other side of the widowed mother and say somethin' cheerful to her in French—if you know any.'“

“'If I know any!' sez he. 'Wasn't I at Chateau-Teery?'“

“'Well,' I sez, 'don't tell her about that. Tell her somethin' she ain't heard already.'“

“'You go to blazes!' he sez, and crosses over like I told him. And pretty soon I seen him gettin' all red and I knew he was goin' to shoot some French at the old lady, and, sure enough, out he come with, ' Madame je swee enchantay.'“

“Well, sir, I like to 've died tryin' to keep from laughin' at that, because what it means translated is, 'Madam, I'm deelighted.' Trust them marines to say the right thing at the wrong time—I'll say they do.”

“By the time I get under control we're opposite the French Aviation Headquarters—you know, the Service Technique on the Bullyvard Saint-Germain. Well, there was a lot of doughboys hangin' around there wastin' time, and I see one on a motor-cycle with a sergeant sittin' in the side-car. So I step out of the ranks and sez to the sergeant, 'What ya doin'?' And he sez, 'Waitin'—but there's nobody home at all, at all.' So I sez: 'Well, you and your side-car is commandeered for this funeral. We're buryin' a frawg and we need some more mourners. The old lady is his widowed mother, and the corpse, he's her only son and her a widow.' He sez: 'Shure, Oi'll come, an' Oi'll be afther gettin' some o' thim other divvles to jine. Me name is Roilly.' 'Right-o, old dear,' I sez. 'I didn't think it was Moses and Straus.'“

“Well, sir, Reilly was a good scout, and inside of a minute he had six doughboys lined up behind the hearse and him bringin' up the rear in the side-car. The side-car kept backfirin', and it sounded like we was firin' salutes to the dead all the way to the park.

“I wanta tell ya, that old lady was tickled. Why, there we was already ten strong, with more to come, because I drafted three gobs at the Bullyvard Raspail. They wasn't quite sober, but I kep' my eye on 'em and they behaved fine. I sez to them: 'You drunken bums, you! You join this funeral or I'll see you're put in the brig to-night.' But to make sure they'd not disgrace Mr. Daniels's uniform I put 'em right behind the widow and the marine and me.

“Well, it appears that one of 'em talks French good—real good, I mean, sir—like a frawg waiter or a coacher.”

“Or a what?” interjected Erskine.

“Or a coacher,” repeated Steve, with dignity. “The fact is, he talked it so good that—well, never mind that yet. He's a smart fellow, though, Mr. Erskine, by the name of Rathbone. Well, never mind—only he's a good fellow and 'ud be pretty useful here, with his French and everything.

“Well, anyway, I begun to wonder after a while where that fellow driving the hearse was takin' us to. We'd gone out the old Bullyvard Raspail a deuce of a way, and Napoleon One showed no signs of stoppin' them horses, and I didn't see no cemetery.

“I sez to the marine, 'I guess we're not goin' to stop till we get to Chateau-Teery,' and he sez, 'You go to hell and stop there.' So I sez, 'I hope the poor old lady don't understand your English.'

“The old dame, I could see, was beginnin' to get weak in the knees and was walkin' about as unsteady as the three gobs behind us. So me and the marine each grabbed an arm and she sez, 'Mercy,' and tried to start a smile. I guess it was pretty hard goin', because the smile didn't get far.

“Well, anyway, we kep' right on and passed that stone lion out there and went right through the gates, the boys all marchin' strong and the motor-bike makin' one hell of a noise aft. When we get through the gates I fall back and I sez to the gob, 'Rathbone,' I sez, 'ask the lady where we're headed and if she trusts the driver.' So Rathbone moves up and has quite a parlez-vous with her.

“'Well,' I sez, 'what's she say?'

“'She sez,' sez Rathbone, 'that we're goin' to bury him in a field out here, and that there ain't no priest will bury him and there ain't no cemetery she can bury him in.'

“'That's funny,' I sez—'too poor, I guess. Well, anyway, it's a shame—I'll say it is—it's a shame.'

“'Yes,' sez Rathbone, slowly, as if he was thinkin'—'yes, it's a damn shame!'“

“And the other two gobs who wasn't as sober as Rathbone, they sez, too, 'Yes, it's a damn shame.'“

“'That makes the navy unanimous,' I sez, and then I begin to work my bean. I was still workin' it and it was respondin' about as well as one of them black Kabyles that are pretendin' to help build our station at Lacanau—I was still workin' it, when the old hearse swings to the right through a gate in a stone wall and brings up short in a field. There was grass in the field and daisies and things, and a lotta tin crosses stuck on mounds that I guessed was graves. It woulda been a pretty cheerful old field, I guess, if they'd let it alone, but them tin crosses looked pretty sick and the paint was peelin' off the tin flowers that people had stuck on the graves, and I guess the head gardener wasn't much of a hand at weedin'.”

“Well, anyway, we all line up in a sorta circle and every one looks pretty downhearted and the three gobs gets perfectly sober, which was a relief. Then Napoleon One climbs down from his box and says somethin' in French to the old widow and points to two birds who're diggin' a hole half-way acrost the field. Rathbone sez that he sez that that is the grave and that the two birds is the grave-diggers and pall-bearers combined.”

“'They are, are they?' I sez. 'This is a military funeral, ain't it? A military funeral conducted by the navy with the army for pall-bearers. And I call on Sergeant Reilly to back me up.'

“'Shure,' sez Reilly, 'but who'll be providin' the priest?'

“Well, when he sez that my old bean give a sort of throb, and I sez: 'Don't bother your nut about the priest. He'll be forthcomin' when and if needed.'

“So, while Reilly was explainin' to his six doughboys and Rathbone was bringin' Napoleon One up to date, me and the widow and the marine goes over to superintend the two birds diggin' the grave. They was two funny-lookin' old birds, too—I'll say they was. They was about a hundred years old apiece and had long white whiskers like St. Peter, and, say, they talked a whole lot more than they dug. I guess they musta been workin' on that grave for a coupla weeks—you know, ten minutes parlez-vous and then one shovela dirt. Me and the marine had to grab their shovels and finish the job or there wouldn't 'a' been no funeral that day.

“When we get back the six doughboys is all ready to give first aid to the coffin, and Rathbone is talkin' to Napoleon One like they was brothers. So I go up to them and I sez to Rathbone:

“'Looka here, Rathbone. I'm the priest at this party. See?'

“'What's that?' sez Rathbone. 'Come again.'

“'I say I'm the priest. This dead poiloo ain't gotta priest nor nothin' and there's his poor mother and her a widow. So I'm that missin' priest, and I'm not too proud to perform free and gratis. Get that?'

“'Hold on, chief,' sez Rathbone. 'You ain't got nothin' to wear.'

“'Nothin' to wear!' I sez. 'You poor cheese, I'm a navy chaplain.'

“'You look more like a Charlie Chaplin,' sez Rathbone.

“I guess that bird wasn't sober yet, after all, because he thought he was funny.

“'Can the comedy,' I sez, 'and you go tell the widow that Father Dempsey, the head chaplain of the U.S. Navy, has consented to perform this afternoon. Now, get it straight, and for Gawd's sake don't go and laugh or I'll put you in the brig.'

“Well, Rathbone looks at me like I was goin' to my death.

“'Good-by, chief,' he sez. 'Wait till the admiral hears of this.'

“'Haw,' I sez—'if he does I'll get decorated.'

“Well, I give Reilly the high sign and out comes the coffin on the doughboys' shoulders. Napoleon One leads the way, and Rathbone and the widow step in after the coffin, and I see that they is talkin' together beaucoup earnestly.

“When we get to the grave the doughboys set down the coffin beside it and all forms in a circle with me and the widow facin' each other. And then there's an anxious silence. I'll say right here that I was the most anxious, and I was sweatin' more than I guess any chaplain oughta sweat. But, by luck, I happen to think that I have my old logarithm-book in my pocket—you know, the one that's bound in black patent-leather. Looks sorta as if it might be a prayer-book or somethin' like that. Anyway, the widow, bein' a frawg widow, I figgered how she'd think maybe it was a Yank Bible issued special to the A.E.F. and condensed like malted milk or somethin'.

“So I draw the old logarithm-book outa my coat and ease up gently to the edge of the grave. The doughboys and the gobs, all except Rathbone, who is wise, acourse, begin to nudge each other and snicker. I oughta warned 'em what was comin', but I didn't have no time, it come to me so quick. So I pretended to read from the book, and sez, in a low voice and very solemn, like I was openin' the funeral, 'If any you birds here starts laughin' I'll see him after the show and I'll knock the daylight outa him.'

“'Amen,' sez Rathbone, very piously.

“'We've come here to-day,' I sez, always like I was readin' from the book—'we've come here to-day to plant a frawg soldier who's the only son of his mother and her a widow. And she's so broke that there ain't no regular priest or no regular cemetery that'll offer their services. So I'm the priest, and it's goin' to make a lotta difference to that poor widow's feelin's when she thinks her son's got a swell U. S. Navy priest administering the rites. Now, get that straight and don't start whinnyin' like a buncha horses and gum the game.'

“Well, I stop there for breath, and Rathbone, who's right on the job, comes across with another 'Amen,' and Reilly, who's a good Catholic, sez, 'Pax vobiscum.'

“So that's all right, and I give her the gun and go ahead.

“'This here poiloo,' I sez, 'I don't know much about him, but he was a regular fellow and a good old bird and treated his mother swell and everything, and I guess if we was wise to everything he'd done we'd be proud to be here and we'd 'a' brung a lotta flowers and things. He most likely was at the battle of the Marne and the Soam and Verdun, and maybe he was at Chateau-Teery. Anyway, he was a grand fighter, and done his bit all the time and kep' the Huns from passin'.”

'And I wanta tell you that we gotta hand it to these French, because they may be little guys, but they carry the longest bayonets I ever see in any man's army.'

“'Amen,' sez all the doughboys and the gobs, except one that yells, 'Alleluia!' He musta been from the South or somewheres.

“'And so,' I sez, 'we're proud to give this frawg a good send-off, and even if we ain't got a real chaplain and the guns to fire a salute with, we're doin' the poor widow a lotta good, and that's somethin'—I'll say it is.'

“'Amen,' sez the audience.

“Then I sez, 'Glory be,' and cross myself and signal the doughboys to lower away on the coffin, and I flung a handfula dirt in on top like I see 'em do always.

“Well, the poor old widow near collapsed and Rathbone and the marine had to hold hard to keep her on her pins. But Reilly created a diversion by startin' up the motor-bike, and it back-fired like a buncha rookies tryin' to fire a volley. If we'd hadda bugle we coulda sounded taps, and the musical accompaniment woulda been complete.

“Napoleon One come up and shake hands with me like I'd won the Medeye Militaire, and, before I could side-step, the widow had her arms round my neck and was kissin' me on both cheeks. Napoleon sez it was a 'Beau geste' which I thought meant a fine joke, and I was afraid the bird was wise, but Rathbone sez no, that it meant a swell action; and the widow sez, over and over again, 'Ces braves Americains—ces braves Americains!' The cordial entente was pretty cordial on the whole! I'll say it was.”

At this point Steve Dempsey paused and glanced about as who should say, “Are there any comments or questions?” For a while there was none forthcoming, but finally Lieutenant Erskine ventured a remark.

“This occurred last Sunday?” he inquired, mildly.

“Yes, sir,” said Steve—“last Sunday.”

“Um,” said Erskine, and without further remarks left the office.

On his return he bore a copy of Le Matin in his hand. He sat down and leisurely and silently unfolded the sheet. Steve had resumed his work, but I noticed that he kept an eye on Erskine.

“I wonder,” said Erskine, smoothing out the newspaper on his knees— “I wonder, Steve, if you happened to see this very interesting article.”

“No, sir,” said Steve. “I don't read French like I speak it.”

“Well,” said Erskine, “I'll translate. This paper is dated last Monday, and on page two occurs the following announcement:”

   “American soldiers, sailors, and marines attend funeral of
       notorious apache. Jean the Rat, convicted murderer and suicide
       and denied the offices of the Catholic Church, is buried by
       stalwart Americans.
     Department of Foreign Affairs reluctant to file protest at
       present time.
     Strange demonstration believed to be unofficial and without U.S.
       government sanction, although U. S. Navy chaplain delivers
       eloquent peroration in English

Erskine put aside the paper in silence, and we all turned to watch Steve. He was very red, even to his ears.

“Gawd!” he spluttered. “Does it really say that, sir? Honest?”

Erskine nodded. “Yes,” he said. “We'll be lucky if we avoid international complications.”

“An apache murderer,” Steve groaned—“and me thinkin' it was a frawg hero. Will I get a court martial for it, sir?”

“I doubt it,” said Erskine, “but I don't think you'll get the Congressional Medal or the Legion of Honour, either. Maybe, though, the President, in recognition of your services toward cementing the entente, will appoint you the next ambassador to France.”

“Well, anyway,” said Steve, still violently red about the face and ears—“well, anyway, I don't care. Even if it weren't a first-class corpse, it was a first-class funeral.”