Fiction

Cardboard Soldier

The major feared the look in the eyes of a girl called Judy more than he had feared any enemy. It called for a special kind of bravery to be a

C. M. McDOUGALL July 15 1951
Fiction

Cardboard Soldier

The major feared the look in the eyes of a girl called Judy more than he had feared any enemy. It called for a special kind of bravery to be a

C. M. McDOUGALL July 15 1951

Cardboard Soldier

The major feared the look in the eyes of a girl called Judy more than he had feared any enemy. It called for a special kind of bravery to be a

C. M. McDOUGALL

SOME OF THE cigar smoke, acrid like ammonia, trickled into Venner’s nostrils. As he stood in front of the desk his pale blue eyes watered. There was nothing but cigar smoke in his stomach, and it had begun to ache again.

“Excuse me.” His voice penetrated the thick air, low but insistent.

The big man at the desk looked up. The cigar was fastened to his lower lip and some leaf fragments stuck to his teeth. “Sorry, Major.” The big man spoke at once. “There isn’t a thing for bookkeepers today.”

But Venner still stood there, waiting. You would have said this man had spent years standing before desks like this. His tired eyes followed the big man and his prominent Adam’s apple ranged up and down the scale of his throat. One hand stirred restlessly inside the pocket of his trench coat.

“Hell, Major.” The big man shifted in his chair. “There’s never much these days.” He laid a heavy finger along his nose, and cleared his throat with unnecessary noise. He liked Venner and he was sorry.

Venner’s eyes lifted to the dust-choked window in the wall above them. His thin frame seemed locked in rigid lines. When he spoke at last his voice was naked with urgency. “Listen,” he said, “I’ve got to find something—today!”

Inside the pocket of his trench coat his fingers squeezed and tested the imprint of each coin. He knew the contents of this pocket exactly: there were forty-two cents and a streetcar ticket.

“I know.” The big man shook the papers on his desk. His eyes strayed away from Venner’s face. Then the penciled note on his desk pad caught his glance and the big face brightened. “Look,” he said. The dead cigar moved with his lips now. “Look, Major, how about this? Here’s a publicity job—up at the College.”

“The College?”

“Yeah—Dudley University. Seems the kids are having what they call a Carnival Week End. They’ve asked for a man to help with some kind of publicity work. About four hours work, and the pay is seven dollars and fifty cents.”

The big man grinned at him. “All right, Major. You report to a student called Winthrop at 10 a.m. She’s all yours.”

Venner released his breath all at once. Then he straightened and smiled back. His relief was sudden and obvious.

It was a friendly face when the tired lines of tension were softened. Standing erect in his trench coat, chin forward so that the Adam’s apple was less conspicuous, at first

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glance you found a certain dignity in his bearing and in the thin features topped by the grey-flecked hair. When you looked more closely, however, the marks of defeat were unmistakable: there was the slight tremble on his lip, the uneasy little smile, and worst of all—the betrayal of self-knowledge to be found deep in his eyes.

For Venner there had been thirty years of failure. Thirty years of walk-

ing up and down streets searching for jobs. Thirty years of holding this ache inside himself, and every now and then the doctors at the Veterans’ Hospital snipping and cutting a part of the snip away. “Why don’t you stay here?” the doctors would ask. “You’ve done your share.” But when they let him out, he went back to the streets again and, for a while at least, he would be a bookkeeper. He was a bookkeeper when his daughter Judy was born, and when his wife died.

He drove himself to hold a succession of jobs until, each time, the ache con-

quered him, sapping his manhood and his capability. So it was that after thirty years he stood here today—with forty-two cents in his pocket, asking for a job.

One time he had been successful. Once he had commanded a company of infantry. But when he went out each morning to find the food that his daughter must eat that day, when the ache marched with him, he remembered that period of command only with a dull kind of wonder.

And each day of the thirty years his failure became a little more certain,

and that look deep in his eyes became itself more certain.

You don’t find this look in the eyes of men living in the hospitals, and the missions, and the soup kitchens. In those eyes you will more often find a kind of blank placidity. That is the look of men who have accepted defeat. But Venner had never accepted defeat. Because, you see, there was always his daughter Judy who needed his help. And perhaps that was why now you could still find a certain dignity in the man.

As he stood before the desk the sunlight filtered through the window and played warmly over his face. There was even a blue sparkle in those faded eyes. Now his voice came out proud and assured, with the tone of a man who must boast of his good fortune.

“My girlmy daughter Judy—she’s up at the College, you know.”

“That so?”

“Yes. In her second year now

— taking the teacher’s course.”

The big man shuffled his papers but said nothing. He knew these symptoms. After a battle he had heard men talk endlessly just to demonstrate their joy in surviving.

“As a matter of fact,” Venner was saying, “I know all about this Carnival Week End. My Judy is going.”

“Well— That’s fine, Major.”

“I don’t mind telling you that I need this money for her.”

A slow reflective smile stayed on Venner’s lips. The thought of Judy always warmed him inside, and could even dull the edges of his ache at times. His pride flowed richly through his veins. Judy lived at the College and she earned her own way, every last penny. There was that part-time job every night. She was really doing too much, he often told her, and occasionally he would manage to force a small present on her. And then when they met she would make him feel like the millionaire father of a debutante.

His face grew serious, and after a moment again, he spoke, almost with a religious fervor. “You see, her young man is taking her to the Prom this week end, and she won’t be able to work at her part-time job—and, well

— she needs my help.”

“Yeah. Sure.” The papers rustled once more for attention.

“You know why 1 need the money today?” Venner asked happily. “That seven-fifty will almost make up for the money she would have earned. In a way, you see, I’ll be giving her this week end . . .”

Venner paused. At last he was aware of the big man fidgeting at his desk. A flush touched his cheeks and his Adam’s apple bobbed hesitantly. “Anyway,” he said quickly, “Thanks a lot. I’ll go up to the College right now.”

HIS STEP was still jaunty when he walked into the Students’ Union. He looked around the oak-paneled room, and studied the array of class pictures with lively interest. A sense of aliveness quickened in him: this

was Judy’s world, that unknown country into which he had never before dared to venture.

A young man with cropped hair appeared at the counter before him “Yes, Sir what can I do?”

“Venner’s my name.” Then he added, still smiling, “The Employment Office sent me.”

“The Employment Office? Oh—” The young man’s eyes widened and he looked at Venner more closely. After a moment his embarrassed glance dropped. “Look, Mr. Venner,” he said slowly, “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake about this.”

There was the faintest tremble on Venner’s lip. His voice came out

carefully controlled. “Look,” he said, “they sent me for a job.” For a moment his tongue flickered nervously across his lower lip.

“Come on in, Pop! Let’s have a look at you.”

Venner turned at the shrill command of this new voice. Then a short young man, almost a schoolboy, with a head far too big for his body, darted out at him, seized his arm, and propelled him quickly through the counter gate.

“Well,” this youth declared, not stopping to draw breath. “You certainly don’t look the part.” Disappointment chirped in every note of his tiny, birdlike voice. He stood back, his immense head cocked on one side, and his round little eyes searched Venner from head to foot.

The other boy’s voice ended the silence. “Listen, Winthrop, I just told Mr. Venner that we made a mistake.” “Yes—and I think you’re right.” The boy called Winthrop stood first on one foot and then on the other. “You see, Pop, what we want is a man to wear those boards there.” A fluttering hand indicated a sandwich board leaning against the wall. There was some vivid lettering printed on both sides.

Venner did not yet understand. His muscles tightened while his mind tried to order control over his features. Bewildered, he looked toward Winthrop, and just for that instant the boy saw full into his eyes. Then Winthrop tittered nervously.

“Maybe you could do it at that, Pop,” he said with a darting rush ot enthusiasm. “How’s about it for seven-and-a-half fish?”

Venner looked at the sandwichboard again. Then he half turned and his shoulders nudged him forward. The ache re-formed itself inside him. “No,” he began, “I’ll go now.” But his hand brushed against the pocket of his trench coat, against his forty-two cents, and he hesitated.

The other boy spoke quickly. “It’s only a publicity stunt, Mr. Venner. We wanted someone to wear this board around the campus today. It’s advertising for the Prom tomorrow night.” Venner’s hand still rubbed against the side of his trench coat. His face formed a white triangle of concentration. Well he thought, this is no different from all the other times. Why did I expect anything else? And why blame these kids?

He took another step away from the counter. The worst part was that he had pledged himself to give this money to Judy, to present her with this week end as his gift. And there was no other possible way to earn the money in the time that was left. Then with a surge of conviction he knew that he could do this thing, since he had to. There was only the one danger.

He turned back and his voice singled out the first young man. He spoke in a flat and even tone. “Could you tell me one thing?” he asked. “Where would a girl in second year of the teacher’s course be today?”

The young man showed no surprise. He walked to a desk and thumbed through the pages of a catalogue. “That’s easy,” he said after a moment, “the whole class is downtown today on case work.”

Venner’s head nodded again. This confirmed what he knew of her plans. And this week end for Judy had now become the most important thing in the world.

He looked at a spot on the floor squarely between the two young men. The sun still poured through the windows but he was cold. “All right,” he said, “I’ll take it.”

“That’s the stuff, Pop!” The boy called Winthrop was hopping up and

down with excitement. The other young man stepped out of the way carefully not looking at either of them.

Venner watched this pantomime patiently. He had made his choice, and he knew now what was expected of him.

Then Winthrop was tugging at his sleeve. “Come on, Pop! Let’s try this on for size.” The boy was fumbling with the heavy sandwich board and at last he had it out in the centre of the room.

The other young man turned his back and crossed the room, where he was busy looking out the window.

VENNER stood alone at the foot of the Dudley Monument, the sandwich-board hanging tightly from his shoulders.

The board on his front announced in bold capitals: “I’M AN ATOM BOMB —AT THE DUDLEY PROM!” At one side was a picture of a man being tossed skywards by a red explosion. On the back a boy and girl danced together. The legend on this side proclaimed: “CRAB YOUR GIRL FOR THE WEEK END WHIRL.”

The walk to the monument had been a shadowy, unreal progression, with Winthrop bobbing and laughing beside him. They must have met hundreds of students along the way, but Venner carefully looked everywhere except into their faces. With the same tight control he had now managed to exclude them from his thoughts.

The Dudley Monument, which honored the founder of the university, stood in the centre of a huge treelined square. This was the geometrical centre of the campus. Along each side of the square, beyond the trees, were the red-brick buildings of the various colleges. A series of cement walks started at the entrance of each building and converged precisely at this point. The monument itself, a tapering column of stone, pushed high above the campus, reaching toward the blue sky and the hot sun.

Winthrop’s instructions had been explicit. Venner was to patrol the length of each walk in turn, and return and circle the monument. And at twelve o’clock exactly he was to enter the largest red-brick building, the College of Arts, and “expose” himself in the large rotunda. That was the time, Winthrop explained, when practically every student in the university would be going or coming from a class.

The straps of the boards pressed tight against Venner’s shoulders, and his hands moved up to ease the strain. The motion was akin to the gesture of a soldier testing the feel of his equipment. The sunlight now raised a light prickle of sweat all over his body.

Venner now took the first pace for ward. For a moment he paused— surprised when the clapper of the handbell in his trench coat pocket struck a hollow note. But he remembered then: Winthrop had thrust this bell

at him, saying that he was to ring it as an additional means of attracting attention. But he let the bell hang there, loosely in his pocket. Then he advanced forward with a slow, measured pace.

The publicity committee of the Carnival Week End, under Winthrop’s inspired leadership, believed it had scored a smash hit this time. The student body had become bored with the usual means used to engage their attention. The sound trucks blatting out their needless messages, the flamboyant banners, the leg-girls from the College Revue—all these were old stuft.

Here was something entirely new and unanticipated.

To begin with, this strange creature plodding along the familiar paths of

their campus was an alien figure, s.i, down here from some foreign world. They had never seen an old man earning his living this way—not at Dudley University. The brown fedora and the trench coat were themselves grotesquely wrong in this sun-drenched place.

The advertising slogans on the boards held no significance for the students. From the start it was clear that it was the man, and not the message he carried that drew their attention.

No one was indifferent in the face of this spectacle. Each person responded according to the chemistry and composition of his own particular self.

White faces mounted on each side of Venner, like waves before the cleaving bow of a ship. As they saw him a change of expression flashed across each face with the speed of electrical contact. Some of these faces settled into grins, or ill-concealed snickers, but on most there was the tight, puzzled look of youth confronted with something uncomprehended, beyond the limit of experience.

And on a few of these faces there was an instantaneous flush of shame and compassion.

But Venner walked on as though unaware of the commotion he created. He covered his route like a soldier on sentry duty. His eyes looked only to the front, and he held his step to a steady beat of 120 paces to the minute. Thus he carried out his assignment.

But, in spite of all his control, he could not ignore the encircling audience. But one vital, sustaining thought marched with him. At least Judy, Judy and her young man, were not among those faces and would not see him as he was today.

He found that his pace was slowing. The steady beat faltering. The ache was a throbbing burden inside him, and his feet were intolerably heavy. But at that moment a girlish voice floated to him across the path. “I think that old man’s sick!” he heard. Then his chin pointed up and his legs moved him on.

At twelve o’clock Dean Sandwell, of the College of Arts, began to consider the subject and sequence of his lunch. The carnival spirit of this week end had already gripped him. Only this morning he had agreed to cancel all downtown case work so that no students would be forced to leave the campus.

Dean Sandwell moved briskly through the marble halls of his college, flashing his best smile at the familiar faces which greeted him.

Then at the top of the broad flight of steps forming the entrance to the building his quick step broke. He halted abruptly on the top step.

Below him, looking squarely into his eyes, was an apparition. It was an old man in a trench coat, wearing some kind of board across his front. For a full two seconds they looked into one another’s eyes. These seconds were extended into a long, aching study of comprehension. The Dean could not look away. In those faded blue eyes he was seeing the depths of failure and despair.

His walk to the Faculty Club was slow and halting. There was no smile on his face, no spring in his step. He realized at once that Winthrop, that bumbling, fatuous bullfinch, Winthrop, had caused this thing, and he could certainly teach Winthrop a lesson. And yet, what was there a man could do? Somehow he felt physically shortened, as though in this encounter he had lost stature as a man. His years walked with him.

And now Venner moved slowly up the steps. There was a time, once in the long ago when he had commanded

men, that he had led the way into enemy country with the same cautious step.

The lack of food, the hollow ache, and the mounting tension, all combined to make him lightheaded. He held on to one governing idea. He must carry out his duties as ordered, and hand the money to Judy. He would not allow his thoughts to go beyond that point.

Cut off from the sunlight, his eyes began to water anew as he stood blinking in the vast marble rotunda. He hardly heard the clamor of young voices or saw the flashing of young eyes, drawn irresistibly to him from every corner of the rotunda. At last he moved forward, beyond some marble pillars, and he came to a halt in front of a bulletin board. If it were not for the trench coat, the fedora, and the boards which he wore, he might have been just another man reading a bulletin board.

But Winthrop had said “expose” himself. So now he turned and began to edge slowly around the perimeter of the huge rotunda, past the classroom doors. Then the shuffling stopped, and he settled down to the same steady pace again. He still kept his mind a resolute blank.

By now Venner was sweating freely and his throat felt parched. Then at one end of the rotunda he found a drinking-fountain, set in an alcove of the wall behind two marble pillars.

He let the water play over his lips greedily. With a sigh he straightened —and looked directly into a mirror. For several seconds the image was meaningless. He saw with surprise the picture of the old man in the trench coat with the boards hanging from him, and in the background the semi-circle of mirthful, puzzled and pitiful faces. He had forgotten the message he carried, and now his lips moved silently as he read the words: “I’M AN

ATOM BOMB—AT THE DUDLEY PROM!”

At this moment the brutal immensity of his degradation seized hold of him. He turned slowly and for the first time he began to look at the faces which surrounded him.

Each face was youth, youth with life still to be lived. These were the faces of hope, for whom all things were possible.

But the old man standing among them was failure. Indeed, he was the epitome of failure, self-proclaimed and self-advertised. So utter a failure that he had to prove himself a success as a sandwich man ... All his thirty years of futility came crowding around him, to be suffered like a new kind of sickness.

Two bright spots of color showed in his cheeks, his lips tightened, and a noise of animal pain grated through his teeth. All at once the semi-circle of watchers retreated before him. Where there had been smiles on those young faces the grins wavered or stopped altogether.

All right then. His failure was absolute. This simply made it final. There would be no more grubbing for odd jobs, no more scraping for the weekly rent. There were places for the defeated, for those at least who

accepted defeat. There were the missions and the soup kitchens. There was even that bed in the Veterans’ Hospital. He realized at once that now he must go away.

He must say good-by to Judy. For a moment he considered the matter and then he knew with final clarity how threadbare the pretence between them really was. The only thing he could do for her, and for her young man too, was to get out of their way. This was the end.

A tight little smile grew at the corners of his mouth. Well he would end things with a flourish. He would earn his seven dollars and fifty cents.

He strode firmly out into the centre of the marble rotunda, the students stumbling and scattering before him as he advanced. He set his feet wide apart and faced the two doors leading into the main classroom.

Venner’s hand went into his trench coat pocket, and then the hand-bell appeared with a swing over his head. As the doors opened, and the first students came pouring through, steel peals of sound clashed and clanged around the marble walls of the rotunda.

For this moment Venner was in command. For this moment he was again Major Venner who led men into battle. He stood there, a clanging island of sound between two plunging rivers of startled faces. The same tight smile stayed on his lips, and now the situation was reversed for he was the only person to smile in the whole rotunda.

His eyes stared into each face boldly. Oh, this was the way to end things! The steel bell flashed in an arc over his head again.

But then, suddenly—-with a cold shock of horror—from one corner of

the door one particular face flashed at him. There was no possible doubt —there was only that one face in all the world, and it was Judy’s! And he knew that she had seen him. So had the young man beside her.

The hand-bell dropped down to his side. It fell from his fingers and rolled across the marble floor.

For an instant he was utterly still, like a soldier at the first flat slam of the mortar bomb. Then Venner started to run. He knew only that he had to hide. Judy must not be permitted to acknowledge him, she must be allowed to make her escape. His feet slipped over the smooth floor and the boards flapped heavily, awkwardly against his body.

Then at last he was behind cover. He was back in the alcove of the drinkingfountain, alone. He pressed his back against the wall, his heels scraping on the wall’s marble gloss, his palms pressed wetly on the smooth surface. He closed his eyes and started to count.

His eyes were still closed tight when he counted to fifty. His breath came more evenly and the sheer panic started to dissolve. She must have got away from the building by now.

He opened his eyes, blinked—and looked directly into Judy’s face. Her quick smile, the warm honesty of her face, all the breath-taking loveliness which never failed to humble him—this was Judy before him. And he knew with a slow kind of wonder that his Judy had not chosen to make her escape. He was only dimly aware of the gaping crowd behind.

“Daddy!” She spoke with a lilt of glad welcome in her voice.

The boy was with her, standing a full pace to the rear. His blue eyes flickered about quickly, searching the edges of the crowd, and a hand tugged

nervously at his collar. At last his handsome young face swiveled back to Judy, and his eyes stared at her, half-shyly, questioning.

But Judy was looking only at her father. Her chin was high, her cheeks richly flushed. “Daddy, what luck to find you here!”

Venner’s eyes tried to speak the abjectness of his apology. But now she held his arm. “Daddy, I want to introduce Steve Wilson.” Her head tossed proudly. “This is my father, Major Venner.”

The boy put his hand forward, awkwardly. A puzzled frown set on his face now, and he looked at Judy searchingly.

Venner had stopped breathing. He knew now that what this boy did in the next five seconds would be decisive —decisive for all of them.

There was a slow change across Steve’s face. Then, still looking at Judy, the boy smiled. “Here, sir,” he said quietly, “Let me take those boards and then—let’s all have a cup of coffee.”

Judy turned quickly and laid her other hand on Steve’s arm.

Venner leaned back against the wall limply. He tasted a warm trickle of blood inside his mouth where his teeth had bitten through his lip. But he smiled then, and he went on smiling, with more strength inside him than he had known for thirty years.

The hot sun poured over them as they stepped out into the campus. The ache was still with Venner but it seemed now like the familiar touch of an old friend. The students saw the back of him as he plodded toward the gates, settling himself into a comfortable military pace, with Judy on one side of him and her young man on the other.