The Hearing Ear


There were three American boys from the region of Philadelphia in the dugout, "Somewhere in France"; and they found it a snug habitation, considering the circumstances.

The central heating system--a round sheet-iron stove, little larger than a "topper" hat--sent out incredible quantities of acrid smoke at such times as the rusty stovepipe refused to draw. But on cold nights and frosty mornings the refractory thing was a distinct consolation. The ceiling of the apartment lacked finish. When wet it dropped mud; when dry, dust. But it had the merit of being twenty feet thick--enough to stop any German shell except a "Jack Johnson" full of high explosive. The beds were elegantly excavated in the wall, and by a slight forward inclination of the body you could use them as _fauteuils_. The rats approved of them highly.

There were two flights of ladder-stairs leading down from the trench into the dugout, and the holes at the top which served as vestibules were three or four yards apart. It was a comfort to think of this architectural design; for if the explosion of a big shell blocked up one of the entrances, the other would probably remain open, and you would not be caught in a trap with the other rats.

The main ornament of the _salon_ was a neat but not gaudy biscuit-box. The top of it was a centre-table, illuminated by a single, guttering candle; the interior was a "combination" wardrobe and sideboard. Around this simple but satisfying piece of furniture the three transient tenants of the dugout had just played a game of dummy bridge, and now sat smoking and bickering as peacefully as if they were in a college club-room in America. The night on the front was what the French call _"relativement calme."_ Sporadic explosions above punctuated but did not interrupt the debate, which eddied about the high theme of Education--with a capital "E"--and the particular point of dispute was the study of languages.

"Everything is going to change after the war," said Phipps-Herrick, a big Harvard man from Bryn Mawr and a member of the Unsocial Socialists' Club. "We are going to make a new world. Must have a new education. Sweep away all the old stuff--languages, grammar, literature, philosophy, history, and all that. Put in something modern and practical. Montessori system for the little kids. Vocational training for the bigger ones. Teach them to make a living. Then organize them politically and economically. You can do what you like, then, with England, France, and America together. Germany will be shut out. Why study German? From a practical point of view, I ask you, why?"

"Didn't you take it at Harvard?" sarcastically drawled Rosenlaube, a Princeton man from Rittenhouse Square. (His grandfather was born at Frankfort-on-the-Main, but his mother was a Biddle, and he had penetrated about an inch into the American diplomatic service when the war summoned him to a more serious duty.) "I understood that all you Harvard men were strong on modern languages, especially German."

Phipps-Herrick grunted.

"Certainly I took it. It was supposed to be a soft-snap course. What do you think we go to Harvard for? But that little beast, Professor von Buch, gave me a cold forty-minus on examination. So I dropped it, and thank God I've forgotten the little I ever knew of German! It will be absolutely useless in the new world."

"Right you are," said Rosenlaube. "My grandfather used to speak it when he was angry--a sloppy, slushy language, extremely ugly. At Princeton, you know, we stand by the classics, Latin and Greek, the real thing in languages. You ought to hear Dean Andy West talk about that. Of course a fellow forgets his Virgil and his Homer when he gets out in the world. But, then, he's had the benefit of them; they've given him real culture and literature. There's nothing outside of the classics, except perhaps a few things in French and Italian. Thank God I never studied German!"

The third man, who had kept silence up to this point, now gently butted in. It was little Phil Mitchell, of Overbrook, a University of Pennsylvania man, who had been stopped in his junior year by a financial catastrophe in the family, and had gone out to Idaho to earn his living as third assistant bookkeeper in a big mining concern. He took a few real books with him, besides those that he was to "keep." Double entry was his business; reading, his recreation; thinking, his vocation. From all this the great war called him as with a trumpet.

"Look here, you fellows," he said quietly, "in spite of this war and all the rest of it, there are some good things in German."

"What," they cried, "you, a fire-eater, stand up for the Kaiser and his language? Damn him!"

"With all my heart," assented Mitchell. "But the language isn't his. It existed a long while before he was born. It isn't very pretty, I'll admit. But there are lots of fine things in it. Kant and Lessing, Goethe and Schiller and Heine--they all loved liberty and made it shine out in their work. Do you mean to say that I must give them up and throw my German overboard because these modern Potsdammers have acted like brutes?"

"Yes," cried Phipps-Herrick and Rosenlaube, nodding at each other, "that's what we mean, and that's what America means. The German language must go!"

"Look here," said Phipps-Herrick, "you admit that modern education must be useful? Well, there won't be any more use for German, because we are going to shut Germany out of the international trades-union. She has betrayed the principles of the new era. We are going to boycott her."

"Won't that be rather difficult?" queried Mitchell, shaking his head. "Seventy or eighty million people--hard to shut them out of the world, eh?"

"Nonsense, dear Phil," drawled Rosenlaube; "it will be easy enough. But I don't agree with Phipps-Herrick about the reason or method. We are going to have a new era after the war. But it will not be a utilitarian age. It will be a return to beauty and form and culture--not with a 'k.' First of all, we are going to kill a great many Germans. Then we are going to Berlin to knock down all the ugly statues in the _Sieges-Allee_ and smash the parvenu German Empire. Then we shall have a new age on classic lines. People will still use French and English and Italian because there is some beauty in those languages. But nobody outside of Germany will speak or read German. It is a barbarous tongue--shapeless and hideous--used by barbarians who gobble and snort when they talk. Sorry for Kant and Goethe and Heine and all that crowd, but their time is up; they've got to go out with their beastly language!"

"Yes," said Phipps-Herrick, "out with them, bag and baggage. Think what the German spies and propagandists have done in America. Schools full of pacifist and pro-German teachers; text-books full of praise of the German Empire and the Hohenzollern Highbinders; newspapers full of treason, printed in the German language. Why, it's only a piece of self-defense to clean it all out, root and branch. No more German taught or spoken, printed or read, in the United States. Forget it! Twenty-three for the Hun language!"

"Noble," gently murmured Mitchell, shaking his head again; "very noble! But not very easy and perhaps not entirely wise. Why should I throw away something that has been useful to me, and may be again? Why forget the little German that I know and burn my Goethe and refuse to listen to Beethoven's music? I won't do it, that's all."

"Our little friend is a concealed Kaiserite," said Rosenlaube. "He wants to Germanize America."

"No, Rosy," said Mitchell, thoughtfully running his hand over some nicks on the butt of his rifle in the corner; "you know I'm not a Kaiserite of any kind. I've got seven scored against him already, and I'm going to get some more. But the language question seems to me different. Cut out the German newspapers and the German schools in America by all means! No more teaching of the primary branches in any language but English! Make it absolutely necessary for everybody in the U. S. A. to learn the language of the country the first thing. Then in the high schools and universities let German be studied like any other foreign language, by those who want it--chemists, and philosophers, and historians, and electrical engineers, and so on. We could censor the text-books and keep out all complimentary allusions to the Hohenzollern family."

"Oh, shut up, Phil," growled Phipps-Herrick. "You're too soft, you old easy-mark! You don't go half far enough. We may not decide to exterminate the Hun race in Europe. But we have decided to exterminate their language in America."

His hand was groping inside the biscuit-box. He pulled out a little ditty-bag and carefully extracted a bit of newspaper.

"Listen to this, you fellows. This is from the National Obscurity Society. You know a chap with a German name is president of it, but he's a real patriot, hundred per cent, not fifty-fifty, Philly. 'The following States have abolished the teaching of German: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, California, and Oregon.' _Abolished_, mind you! What do you think of that?"

"Most excellent Phippick," nodded Rosenlaube, "I opine, as Horace said to Cicero, 'That's the stuff,' or words to that effect. What saith the senator from Mitchellville?"

"Noble," grinned Phil, "unmistakably noble! Those Obscurity fellows are a fiery lot. It reminds me that during the late war with Spain, when I was a little, tiny boy, but brimful of ferocity, I refused to eat my favorite dessert because it was called _Spanish_ cream. I felt sure at the time that my heroic conduct was of distinct assistance to Dewey in the battle of Manila Bay."

"Well, then," said Phipps-Herrick, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him good-humoredly, "you murderous little pacifist with seven nicks on your gun, will you give up your German? Will you forget it?"

Mitchell chuckled and shook his head,

"As far as requisite under military orders. But no further, not by a--"

A pair of muddy boots was heard and seen descending one of the ladders, followed by the manly and still rather neat form of Lieutenant Barker Bunn, a Cornell man from West Philadelphia. The three men sprang to their feet and saluted smartly, for the lieutenant was very stiff about all the preliminary forms.

"Too loud talking here," he said gruffly. "I heard you before I came down. Who is here? Oh, I see, Sergeant Phipps-Herrick, Privates Rosenlaube and Mitchell. It's your turn to go out on listening post to-night, sergeant. Twelve sharp, stay three hours, go as far as you can, come back and report, take Mitchell or Rosenlaube with you. Captain's orders."

The sergeant saluted again, and the two men looked at each other.

"Why not both of us, sir?" said Mitchell.

The lieutenant regarded him with some surprise. Listening post is not a detail passionately desired by the men. It is always dirty, frequently dangerous, generally obscure, and often fatal. Hence there is no keen competition for it.

"Two is the usual number for a listening post," said Barker Bunn thoughtfully. "But there is no regulation about it, and the captain did not specify any number. Well, yes, I suppose you can all three go, if you are set on it. In fact, I give the order to that effect."

"Thank you, sir," said Rosenlaube and Mitchell. Phipps-Herrick, feeling that the strict etiquette of the preliminaries had been fully observed and the time to be human had come, held out a box of "Fierce Fairies."

"Have a cigarette, Bunn, and take a chair, do. Time for a little talk this quiet night? Tell us what's doing up above."

"Nothing particular," said Barker Bunn, lighting and relaxing. "But the old man has a hunch that the Fritzies are grubbing a mine--a corker--to get our goat. Hence this business of ears forward. The old man thinks the Fritzies have a strong grouch against this little alley, and since they couldn't take it top side last week they're going to try to bust it out bottom side with a big bang some day soon. Maybe so--maybe just greens--but, anyway, you've got to go on the Q. T. with this job--no noise, don't even whisper unless you have to; just listen for all you're worth. P'r'aps you'll hear that little tap-tap-tapping that tells where Fritzie Mole is at work. Then if you come back and tell the old man where it is, he'll give you all the cigarettes you want. But say, do you want me to give you a pointer on the way to go, the method of procedure, as the old man would call it?"

They agreed that they were thirsting for information and instruction.

"Well, it's this way," continued Barker Bunn. "You know I had a bit of experience in listening post while I was with the Canadians down around 'Wipers'; and I noticed that most of the troubles came from a bad method of procedure. Fellows went out any old way; followed each other in the dark, and then hunted for each other and came to grief; all those kind of silly fumbles. Now, what you need is _formation_--see? Must have some sort of formation for advance. Must keep in touch. For two men a tandem is right. For three men, what you want is a spike-team--middle man crawls ahead, other men follow on each side just near enough to touch his left heel with right hand and right heel with left hand--a triangle, see? Keep touching once every thirty seconds. If you miss it, leader crawls back, side men crawl in, sure to meet, nobody gets lost. Go as far _as_ you can, then spread out like a fan, fold together _when_ you can, come back _if_ you can--that's the way to cover the most possible ground on a listening post. Do you get me?"

"We get you," they nodded. "It's a wonderful scheme." And Rosenlaube added in his most impressive literary manner: "Plato, it _must_ be so, thou reasonest well."

"But tell me," said the lieutenant, "what were you fellows chattering about so loud when I came down?"

So they told him, and, according to the habit of college boys, they skirmished over the ground of debate again, and Barker Bunn vigorously supported the majority opinion, and Mitchell was left in a hopeless minority of one, clinging obstinately to his faith that there had been, and still might be, some use for the German language.

Midnight came, and with it the return of the lieutenant's official manner. He saw the trio slide over the top, one by one, vanishing in the starless dark. "Good luck going and coming," he whispered; and it sounded almost like an unofficial prayer.

In single file they crept through the prepared opening in the barbed-wire entanglement, and so out into No Man's Land, where they took up their spike-team formation. Phipps-Herrick was the leader, the other men were the wheelers. They had agreed on a code of silent signals: One kick with the heel or one pinch with the hand meant "stop"; two meant "back"; three meant "get together." They carried no rifles, because the rifle is an awkward tool for a noiseless crawler to lug. But each man had a big trench-knife and a pair of automatic pistols, with plenty of ammunition.

The space between the two front lines of barbed wire in this region was not more than four or five hundred yards. In the murk of that unstarred, drizzling night, where every inch must be felt out, it seemed like a vast, horrible territory. There was nothing monotonous about it but the blackness of darkness. To the touch it was a _paysage accidente_, a landscape full of surprises. Dead bodies were sprinkled over it. It was pockmarked with small shell-holes and pitted with large craters, many of them full of water, all slimy with mud. Phipps-Herrick nearly slipped into one of the deepest, but a lively kick warned his followers of the danger, and they pulled him back by the heels.

Now and then a star-shell looped across the spongy sky, casting a lurid illumination over the ghastly field. When the three travellers caught the soft swish of its ascent, they "froze"--motionless as a shamming 'possum--mimicking death among the dead.

It was a long, slow, silent, revolting crawl. Sounds which did not concern them were plenty--distant cannonade, shells exploding here and there, scattered rifle-shots. All these they unconsciously eliminated, listening for something else, ears pressed to the ground wherever they could find a comparatively dry spot. From their point of hearing the night was still as the grave--no subterranean tapping and scraping could they hear anywhere under the sea of mud.

Once Rosenlaube caught a faint metallic sound, and signalled through Phipps-Herrick's left leg to Mitchell's left arm, "Stop!" All three listened tensely. They crawled toward the faint noise. It was made by a loose end of wire swaying in the night-wind and tapping on a broken helmet.

They were getting close to the German barbed wire. The leader had swung around to the west, following what he judged to be the line of the front trench, perhaps forty yards away. He was determined to hear something before he went back. And he did!

Just as he had made up his mind to call up the other fellows for the final spreadout in fan formation, his groping right hand touched something round and smooth and hard. It seemed to be made fast to a string or wire, but he pulled it toward him and gave the "stop" signal to his followers.

The thing he had picked up was a telephone receiver. How it came to be there he did not know. Perhaps a German listening post had carried it out last night, in order to receive directions from the trench; perhaps the mining party--man killed, receiver dropped, wire connection not cut, or tangled up with other wires--who can tell? One thing is sure--here is the receiver, faintly buzzing. Phipps-Herrick joyfully puts it to his ear. He hears a voice and words, but it is all gibberish to him. With a look of desperation on his face he gives the "get together" signal.

Rosenlaube crawls up first and takes hold of the cylinder, puts it to his ear. He hears the sound, but it says absolutely nothing to him. It is like being at the door of the secret of the universe and unable to get over the threshold.

Then comes Mitchell, slowly, a little lame, and almost "all in." Phipps-Herrick thrusts the receiver into his hand. As he listens a beatific expression spreads over his face. It lasts a long time, and then he lays down the cylinder with a sigh.

The three heads are close together, and Mitchell whispers under his breath:

"Got 'em--got the whole thing--line of mine changed--raiders coming out now--twelve men--rough on us, but if we can get back to our alley we've got 'em! Crawl home quick."

They crawled together in a bunch, formation ignored. Presently steps sounded near them. A swift light swept the hole where they crouched, a volley of rifle-shots crashed into it. The Americans answered with their pistols, and saw three or four of the dark forms on the edge of the hole topple over. The rest disappeared. But Rosenlaube had a rifle-ball through his right hip and another through his shoulder. Mitchell and Phipps-Herrick started to carry him.

"Drop it," he whispered. "I'm safe here till dawn--you get home, quick! Specially Phil. He's the one that counts. Cut away, boys!"

Meantime the American trench had opened fire and the German trench answered. The still night broke into a tempest of noise. A bullet or a bit of shell caught Mitchell in the knee and crumpled him up. Phipps-Herrick lifted him on his back and stood up.

"Come on," he said, "you little cuss. You're the only one that has the stuff we went out after. I'm going to carry you in, 'spite of hell."

And he did it.

Mitchell told the full story of the change in the direction of the German mine and the plan of the next assault, as he had heard it through that lost receiver. The captain said it was information of the highest value. It counted up to a couple of hundred German prisoners and three machine-guns in the next two days.

Rosenlaube, still alive, was brought in just before daybreak by a volunteer rescue-party under the guidance of Phipps-Herrick. All three were cited in the despatches. Phipps-Herrick in due time received the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry on the field. But Mitchell had the surplus satisfaction of the hearing ear.

"Look here, old man," Rosenlaube said to him as they lay side by side in the hospital, "'member our talk in the dugout just before our big night? Well, I allow there was something in what you said. There are times when it is a good thing to know a bit of that barbarous German language. And you never can tell when one of those times may hit you."


facebook share button twitter share button google plus share button tumblr share button reddit share button email share button share on pinterest pinterest

Create a library and add your favorite stories. Get started by clicking the "Add" button.
Add The Hearing Ear to your own personal library.

Return to the Henry van Dyke Home Page, or . . . Read the next short story; The Hero and Tin Soldiers

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson