At the frontier getting down, at railhead drinking
hot tea waiting for pack-mules, at the box with
three levers watching the swallows … The fatty
smell of drying clothes, smell of cordite in a wood,
and the new moon seen along the barrel of a gun.
The words at the end of a poem, the slogan shouted, the headline for gray industrial scenes, waterfront blue-gray, the black even in the air over mines, the dark sidewalks before factories, covered with lines of gray parading people. Words printed, painted out, broadcast in handbills. Not like this.
She looked about the platform.
There, the young pregnant blonde turned, and began her slow walk toward the head of the train, weighted, undisturbed; the Hungarians began to talk at top speed in their own language, a very beautiful one with heavy eyebrows, the grasping printer, the manager, Toni staring, and the anonymous rest; the boys called out from the yellow trees; the pavement was fairground, distinguished and made serious only by the guards near each door of the train. The near guard came closer to the team, and nodded yes in answer to their question.
“Huelga General,” he substantiated.
And the scene was intensely foreign, it was a new world indeed, with these words true.
The train, the frontier.
Now the train was held, as surely as if the tracks before and behind had been blown up, as one rumor said; as surely as if the engineer had refused ever to move again, as Peapack must be thinking; or as if the searching party had found, not photographs, but spy incriminations; more surely.
The anonymous passengers!
“What will you do?” Helen asked Toni.
“The team must decide,” he told her. The printer was talking to the manager, repeating the whole story of what the mayor had told him, had told the American who had been outraged, it seemed, at the mention of the words.
“Not the lawyer,” the manager said. “Better find him. He speaks seven languages, too.”
“I’ll tell the family,” Helen suggested to Toni, thinking of the grandmother.
They were already wrapping the rest of the sausage in the newspaper, pulling down the great wicker hamper again, preparing to move. The news had come through.
“Where will you go?” she asked them.
“We’ll find places in the town,” the father said. “Come with us, it won’t be good to sleep on the train.” He looked around the compartment, at the stiff wooden benches, the walls, the metal heat of sun on still wood.
She thanked them. “But I’d better find the others,” she insisted, “the American woman is alone, too, and they tell me there are other Americans here.”
“Yes,” said the grandmother. “You’ll have to find them. We’ll ask at the café about a place to sleep, and, if you want us, the café will know where we went. Here—” she plucked at her son’s elbow. He reached for the heavy black suitcase, and set it on the bench.
“Better go up to first,” he advised, the slow unshaven smile channeling his cheeks. “There are cushions there, anyway.”
They were ready to leave.
The fair-haired boy took the package of food and slung it over his shoulder. He was still eating almonds, and his pointed teeth glittered. As he took his grandmother’s hand, he turned suddenly to Helen, with a volunteer look in the startling iodine eyes. “Good-bye,” he said rapidly, trying the word in English.
SHE KICKED THE suitcase before her through the connection between the cars, kicking it against the feet of a stranger whose thick glasses seemed over-smooth and blazing on his heavily pitted face.
He dodged to the side, escaping apologies.
“Are you American?”
“No,” he answered, still in French. “I am Swiss. There is a Swiss team on the train, but I’m not with it. Are you looking for the Americans who are going to the Olympics in Barcelona?”
She was speaking eagerly, the words falling on each other. If only I were fluent, now, she thought, I need words now!
“They’ve been looking for you, too,” the Swiss told her. “They heard there were two more Americans on the train. You must be the other woman . . .”
“Do you know about the General Strike?”
“Really?” the Swiss exclaimed, his look of surprise sunk deep in the pockmarked forehead. “Is that what it is?”
He picked her suitcase up easily, and turned.
“Come on through,” he said, “I’ll show you where they are. They’ll want to hear.”
He led the way through the empty corridor of the first-class car. Voices came from one of the doors, half rolled back on its little groove. He swung it back all the way.
“May I introduce the American lady?” he said, with mock-formality. “And the news: it’s General Strike!”
“WE JUST HEARD,” the man answered, pronouncing in careful French, his mouth shaded by the brown mustache on the long, sensitive lip. He sat against one window, his head thrown back against the antimacassar, his hand stretched out over the clasped hands of the woman who was next to him. “Hello!” he said, in English, to Helen. “Nice day.” And grinned. “We’ve been looking for you.”
“Yes,” the dark woman beside him agreed. “They’ve given us at least five different descriptions of you, and none of them fit. Her cheeks caught shadow, her curly hair turned over her forehead, the broad planes of her face missed being Negroid because of the sharp mouth.
“I was in third,” Helen said, looking at the two other women who sat across from the couple.
One was tall, and the red blouse she wore pulled, with its color, at the pointed collarbones, the greenish throat and face; the other shrank, rather sickly, beside her, with her head on one side, listening.
“Wait a minute, I can’t hear,” interrupted the tall one nearest the window, “the radio’s started again.”
A tremendous voice, like a voice in an airplane, started to expound. It seemed sourceless, deity; it said a few peremptory phrases, came to a violent close, and the music started again, a soft Spanish dance played from a recording.
They waited until the music started. “There, that’s news of the battle,” said the man. “The government’s sound!”
“God, it has to be,” exploded Helen, forgetting tact, forgetting their strangeness. “What is this all anyway, a putsch of some kind?”
“Why, hello!” said the man, realizing her. “Is that how you feel? Well, for Christ sake, come and sit down.” The Swiss, not understanding, made a sign; he had to leave. The man went on. “It looks like a Fascist putsch; but the radio says it’s failing in Barcelona. It’s the government radio, of course; but it’s good news, just the same, good news for all of us.”
“Are you going to the Games?” Helen asked him.
“Certainly,” the woman beside him said, in her low, reedy voice; “and if you want the Party line on the radio, and the frontier, and the armed guards, Peter’s the man to give it to you, aren’t you?” she mocked. But the seriousness, the intimacy was very evident. When she spoke to him, the women across were shut out, there was actual closeness.
“Communist?” Helen asked.
“Yes,” he answered, “and gladder of it right now than about any time. Where are you from?” he asked her, and (through the Spanish music) they knew, New York, a matter of blocks between them, a matter, perhaps, of missing each other by moments in theater lobbies, at lectures, on streets.
“Organization?” asked Peter.
“None,” she answered, “but I’ve been in the American Student Union, and I’ve done some work for the I.L.D.” She looked past them to the platform. She could see the gray-haired man with the mourning band, surrounded by the Hungarian team: he must be the mayor—the armed workers, the town, alert, faces leaning from the row houses. “I wish now, for the first time, that I were really active,” she said, slowly.
The two women beside her brightened. “We’re in the Teacher’s Union,” said the sickly one. “We’ve been reading up.”
Peter pointed to a yellow pamphlet in the tall one’s hand. “How’s that?” He burst into laughter, and the woman beside him laughed, as at an old joke. “She’s been reading a French pamphlet on the problems of the Spanish Revolution ever since the train was stopped!” Helen laughed, a full, happy laugh from the lungs. “You should have seen the faces of the girls who searched for photographs!”
Helen was trying to remember. “I didn’t see you at Port Bou,” she said.
“We saw you, though,” said the dark woman.
“Yes, Olive saw you get on,” Peter told her.
“We were in the next car—got on first of all, I guess. We’d been swimming in Port Bou—came down from Carcassonne yesterday, so that we could have the night at the border. How’s that for perfect timing?”
“That’s how Peter felt,” Olive said to Helen. “That poem about never getting to Carcassonne made him go, I swear.”
“Such a bad poem, too,” Peter was apologizing. “But an amazing city. Preserved, so that the old houses and walls, which should be dead, are full of the living. It was a good prelude to this.” He waved at the window.
Helen looked down at her suitcase. The benches were upholstered here in the first-class gray. “Next car! Were you in third, too?” Peter followed her look. “Don’t be class conscious when it’s irrelevant. We took possession of this compartment. It was quite empty—most of first was empty—and we have to be able to take
over, you know.”
“All right,” said Helen. “I’m beginning to.”
“I have even put my feet up, on occasion,” Peter went on. His eyes were almost black, seen with the light brown hair.
Olive shook her head, smiling. “And took them down again. Hollywood disturbed us,” she explained. Hollywood?
“Haven’t you met our magnates?” She leaned back. “The three gentleman from Paramount who occupy the Pullman car: item, one executive; item, two newsreel men.”
“Arrogant bastards, too,” said Peter, sighing.
“They’re the prime reason for that search of the train.”
“Except it was good common sense,” said the tall schoolteacher. “Our countrymen!” Olive exclaimed. “And it looks as though we’ll be seeing our countrymen, too. It’s lucky you turned out all right,” she said to Helen, “we were worried.”
“You sound like Peapack. She was worried,” Helen saw, flash, the green metal compartment of the French express.
“Peapack?” said Peter, sitting up.
“She comes from there, New Jersey,” Helen told him. “Five suitcases, didn’t know there were going to be Games in Barcelona, means to proceed to Milan and Berlin, asks why anti-fascist . . .”
“Well, the English can take care of her. We won’t.” Peter was firm. “Have you met the English?”
“No,” said Helen. “I’ve been with some Catalans, and the Hungarian team.”
“Well, the English are prepared to do their duty,” Peter said. “There seem to be at least three couples, all first, and they’re hav ing a meeting now. And there’s the chorus; seen them? Six swell platinum blondes, and a self-effacing manager; oh, and some sort of traveling salesman—I can’t think of any others. Then there are a few assorted people we ran into: three Frenchman, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were spies, and a German-looking family who’ve moved up to first, and Olive saw another German get on at Port Bou, didn’t you?”
“A fine one,” said Olive.
“Well, we met the others while we were trying to get coffee,” Peter went on. “They closed the dining car while we were in the middle; locked it up, and put a sign, ‘Not Running,’ on the door.”
“You might go and see whether the water is, Peter,” Olive was reminded.
“Oh, no, that’s definitely out,” he said. “The water gave out on the train a half hour ago. We’ve been talking to the engineer. He’s sitting on the steps of the cab, being bawled out for a dirty slacker by the Hollywood guys. They think he’s refused to run the train.”
“They act as if he was a mule,” said the sickly woman.
“Well, the chocolate’s good, anyhow,” said the other.
“Yeah, they got a supply in Paris,” Peter said. “Lucky we ran into you . . . Imagine, we hadn’t seen them in three years, and there they were drinking coffee in the diner on this train . . .”
“Of all places,” finished Olive. If we’d got a supply of something like that in Paris—”
“Oh, it was fine,” Peter said. He was talking to Helen, in exuberance. “We were there, Bastille Day. A million people on that march, past the Mur des Fédérés, through Père Lachaise through the entire city . . .”
“What’s that?” said the sickly woman, sharply, her head on one side.
Peter stopped a moment. He put his lower lip out; he heard nothing. “Don’t look now,” he cracked, “there’s a revolution in the next car.”
“Aren’t the children beautiful in this town?” Peter said sud- denly. “Remember that boy, Olive? I wish we had a child like that boy.” Her face was darkened and sad; some meaning Helen did not understand fell across it.
“Oh, shut up for a moment!” the woman said vehemently.
In the air, the music was changing. From the Spanish dance, the needle of some distant phonograph scratched for a moment, and then, familiarly, the words began:
St. Louis woman
with her diamond rings,
got my man . . .
They laughed nervously, and stopped to listen again.
“There!” said the woman.
Rapid and thin, the high frail sound clapped out between the hills. It could not be the record. That went on:
. . . by her apron strings,
wahn’t for diamonds . . .
Crazy and American in this town. Moncada. There, the sound again, high and unmistakable. They had been to too many movies to mistake it.
“Rifles!” cried Peter.
Peter’s lip straightened suddenly, vibrated like wire; Olive’s face took on an amazing beauty.
“Maybe it’s only backfire,” said the tall woman weakly.
From up the car, a calling grew. A woman’s voice went past as the woman ran loosely down the corridor, shrieking.
“The guns! The guns!”
“CAN YOU TELL where the sounds come from?” Helen asked.
“I don’t think John Reed could tell, in these hills,” Peter smiled whitely. “We could be in the middle of a thing like that, I’ll bet, and not know what was going on.”
“Well, he was always at the bottom of a flight of stairs when something was happening at the top, wasn’t he?”
“And the story of the waiter—he was asked where he was during the Revolution, and he said, ‘It was during the special dinner, sir.’”
The sounds had stopped. Only the radio was still singing blues.
“But this isn’t revolution!” the sickly woman said. Her words came trembling. “This is nothing like that!”
“We can’t just sit here,” Peter was saying sharply. “I want some coffee. Come and find some coffee; I want to find out what this is all about!” He stood up, and the two other women stood with him. “All right,” they said, under their breath.
Olive and Helen wanted to stay. Helen could not have moved. To see the gun, the threat, to fear the plane, to feel the radio emerge, meant one thing; but the clap of sound in the hills, the voice shrieking through the corridor!
“Don’t go far,” Olive said pleading; and, then, looking at his face, “sorry.”
His look changed. “No, you’re right,” he said, and kissed her, bending over her, his hair falling forward as he leaned. “You’re right; I’ll be right back, I’ll just go up to the place where the truck left from.”
The women were waiting outside. Then they were gone.
“IT WAS SO tragic, to hear that gun,” Olive said slowly. “No matter what it signifies. I don’t belong to any party.” She stopped a moment, looking out the window. “I wish he hadn’t said that about the child.”
“He looked as if he wanted a child, very much,” Helen answered.
“He does—I don’t know why I should be telling you this,” she said, shy then, abrupt. “Except that this train makes you feel that you’re not in—oh, I don’t know—in Europe, in society. Don’t let me get whimsical,” she mocked herself.
“You get angry at that idea?”
She turned her face away. She knew which idea. “All this war,” she said after a minute.
War! In a slow admission, Helen took the word finally. Yes. This is it.
“We’ve had our heads out of the window,” Olive said. “Peter’s been talking to some of the men. They talk about having to win, and their look goes bright. Do you feel the fate here? They tell us this is death unless the country is won in this war.” She spoke in a rush of feeling, sudden and fatalistic, that made Helen turn in on herself even more, not liking to face the romanticism of the words “fate,” and “death” in the bright sun, with Olive’s eyes swung on her, firing up steadily.
“It doesn’t seem political, even,” she said. She was speaking flatly, hating her self-consciousness.
“Marx, in these hills?” Olive laughed.
“No, not like that, this is what I mean.” Helen leaned forward, beginning to relax in the effort of explanation. The fact. The story of one or two people. She told about the Catalan family. The story of Toni. She was speaking fast now, wanting to be finished. “It seems more a question of the presence of belief, of feeling.”
“That’s what gets me angry,” Olive said slowly, and her eyes lengthened. They were dark. There was sun.
“Not theirs—only that I can’t feel it myself. It was that way in France, too. I can’t make myself feel it.”
Helen’s hand came out in a push of denial. “Don’t be one of those,” she said vehemently. “I hate them most, and I know plenty of them in New York. The spoiled, brutal girls with the disappointed faces, trying for all they’re worth to make themselves feel.”
Olive looked sharply at her.
“Why should you feel; who are you that you should push any- thing on yourself?” Helen said, in a loss of control. “Let yourself alone; my God!” Olive was staring at her. Surprise and regret, until the jealousy passed. The look pulled Helen in. She was quiet, and went on evenly.
“Don’t feel anything,” she said. “That’s not so terrible. Only don’t try so.”
“And what about you, does everything hit you hard?”
Helen sat back against the lace, against the gray upholstery. “Oh, that, it’s the last thing that counts, anyway, the way we are. We’re to be quiet, and stay in the train. Tourists! To look out the window!”
She repeated the names of the lace border, with pain, and with a certain sarcasm that drew the two women together more quickly than any talk about emotions could. The pattern ran straight over all the lace edges.
THE AFTERNOON WAS deepening, and the population of the station platform was growing continually.
From the street behind the station, automobiles could be heard.
They must go down the street very slowly—their horns were blowing, a harsh triplicate blowing, One-Two-Three down the road. One of them swung into sight, pulled down the half-street to the station, and stopped. On its side was painted, in white, scrawling letters, “C.N.T.,” and the long, new car behind it was lettered “F.A.I.”
“What does that mean?” Helen asked.
“I wonder where Peter is,” said Olive.
From the car, armed men were hurrying to the train. Two of them stopped at the back of the station house, and the others broke into a half-run, heading up toward the engine.
After a few minutes they ran back to their cars, got in, and with a screeching of tires, the cars pulled off.
The horns went One-Two-Three the length of the village, seemed to turn, and faded.
“I’ve got to get Peter,” Olive repeated, and stood.
Peter was at the door.
“Look,” he said gaily, “I lost them. They went back to their compartment,”
“What do you know?” Olive asked.
“Oh, it’s complicated,” he answered. “So many Anarchists, too. But not like ours—here, they’re different, they’re in the majority, and it’s natural anarchism: they’ve never seen any party that didn’t rob them, the state is always the church and the generals and the other landowners, and it looks as though those are the people who have attacked this government. It’s a liberal government, too, voted in OK, nothing particularly left-wing about it—not last night, anyhow,” he added with a grin.
“And the cars?” Helen remembered initials.
“That’s what gets me,” he said, puzzled. “I know some of the let- ters. C.N.T.—that’s Confederación Nacional del Trabajo; F.A.I.— Federación Anarquista Ibérica; and then the other big trade union group (there are more cars in town), U.G.T.: Unión General de Trabajadores. Those are the three great labor unions in Spain . . . Oh, and here’s a present,” he added, fishing a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “Bisontes; they must be made by the Lucky people, they’re packed like Luckies; one peseta fifty, and the English are stocking up on them. You ought to see their providence and foresight,” he waved his hand, “bread, Vichy, candles—they’re setting up house on the train. I don’t know what they think we’re in for; they’ve bought enough to last a week.”
“What about guns?” Olive asked him.
“I think the whole town’s armed,” he answered. “I didn’t see a man without a gun; and civilians are guarding the road up there, stopping every car that goes through. I heard the story about two regiments in Barcelona, and then someone said four—one thing’s certain, this is all over Spain. Somebody said the tracks were blown up; somebody else said there was a train stopped in every station all along the line.”
“When do you suppose the train will move?”
“Can’t say. But they’ll let us know. The town’s all right,” he said violently. “Know what they’re doing? Feeding the whole darn Olympic crowd, at their own expense!”
He sat down and opened the pack of Bisontes.
“I met some more people, too,” he said. “There’s a stunning South American woman with the English, who told me that about the food—that’s the mayor’s order; and your friend from New Jersey, Helen,” he told her, “She’s looking for you all over the platform.
“No, leave your bag here,” Peter went on, “You’ll be staying with us.” They looked at her, with their intent grave looks. She had come to rely on them already.
“See you in a few minutes,” she said.
PEAPACK WAS HUDDLED in her corner still. “God,” she was muttering, “what have I let myself in for?” She sprang up when she saw Helen. “It’s war,” she cried, “but the Fascists are going to rescue us, I mean the Anarchists—oh, do you know what’s happening?”
Helen sat down with her.
“No,” she said, “I won’t move, Helen, I won’t leave this compartment, I can’t bear it. Did you hear the Belgian woman rush down the train? She came in here and said that noise was guns. It did sound like backfire, didn’t it? Who’s that?
Toni was at the window, calling Helen. She leaned out. He was an old friend, his face was immensely, touchingly familiar, the purple lips darkening in the half-light, his gay dark eyes. He wanted her to come to dinner, she was with the Olympics, the town was standing them all dinner.
“Go ahead, I’ll see you later,” she promised.
Peapack was behind her, pulling her arm.
She turned to the older woman, the whitened harassed face, sunken with fear.
“Don’t leave me, Helen,” she demanded, “don’t leave me alone. It sounds like war, I can’t bear it, we’ll never get out of this, don’t go, only don’t go!”
Evening was coming down. The radio was very loud.
© Muriel Rukeyser