Solitaire by Fleta Campbell
We were sitting—three Frenchmen, a young American
named Homan, and I—in the café of one of
those small Paris hotels much frequented, even then, by
officers on leave. It was the winter of 1912, when the
Balkans were playing out their colorful little curtain-raiser
to the great drama which followed—playing it,
as they say in the theater, “in one,” using only the very
smallest part of the stage, and failing even in their most
climactic moments to completely conceal the ominous
sounds from behind the curtain where the stage was being
set for the real business of the play.
At the tables a sprinkling of English and Americans
of the usual transient type mingled with French from the
provinces, and here and there a swarthy Balkan in uniform
accented the room.
It was the presence of those other Americans—two
or three, I should say, besides Homan and myself, though
I hadn’t noticed particularly—that gave the special significance
to Homan’s exclamation when he discovered
I saw him pause with his glass half raised—he was
gazing straight past me over my shoulder—and a smile,
meant for me, came into his eyes.
“Look!” he said, “at the American!”
I turned, because his manner indicated clearly enough
that I might, squarely round in my chair, and immediately
it was clear to me why he had said just that. Any
one would have said it—any other American, I mean—which
makes it more striking—and said it involuntarily,
too. You couldn’t have helped it. And yet you would
encounter a dozen perfectly unmistakable Americans
every day in Paris without feeling the necessity for any
remark. It was simply that Corey was so typically the
kind of American you wouldn’t encounter in Paris, or
any other place, you felt, outside his own country. The
curious thing about him was that instantly on seeing him,
almost before you thought of America, you thought of
a particular and localized section of America. You
thought of the Middle West. There was something
wholesome and provincial and colloquial about him. He
was like a boy you’d gone to grammar school with—the
kind of fellow to succeed to his father’s business and
marry and settle down in his home town, with New York
City his farthest dream of venture and romance.
Yet there he sat across the table from a dark-visaged
Balkan officer who was carrying on the conversation in
careful English—it would have been unimaginable that
he should speak in anything but English to him—and it
may have been the brilliance of this man’s uniform which
kept one, just at first, from seeing that he, too, our American,
was wearing some sort of uniform, khaki color, very
workman-like and shipshape, which might, if there had
been the least chance of throwing us off, have thrown us.
But his round, good-natured, uncomplicated face, his
light brown hair and the way it was brushed—the very
way it grew, like a school-boy’s—the comfortable set of
his broad shoulders, his kind of energetic inclination to
stoutness, and even the way he sat at the table, were pure
American Middle West and nothing else, no matter what
his uniform proclaimed. He was as American as the
flag, as the opening bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner,”
as American as Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa.
And when, at young Homan’s exclamation, I had
turned and found him looking straight toward me, the
twinkle of his eyes had the effect of a friendly wave of
his hand. He had, of course, as he said afterward,
“spotted us,” too. Then he had seen—and it amused
him—the little play of our discovery.
I was just turning back to applaud to Homan the
obviousness of his designation, and to wonder, with him,
what the uniform meant, when my eye was caught by a
thin, brilliantly colored line drawn, it seemed, just above
the left breast pocket of his coat, and about the same
My first impression of the man, of the familiarity of
his type, had, I suppose, been so strong as to dull for a
moment my reaction to this discovery. I had seen that
vari-colored line often enough before, on the uniforms of
British officers or French; I had perhaps seen it on an
American, but certainly I had never seen it on an American
like this. No wonder the connection was slow to
establish itself. It was a decoration bar, and there must
have been six ribbons at least, if not more.
For sheer incongruous association, I doubt if you’d
find a more pat example in a lifetime than the man I had,
on sight, conceived this one to be—the man I may as
well say now he actually was—and that bar of ribbons
pinned on his khaki-colored coat.
Young Homan had caught it, too, and was sending
past me his deliberate stare of amazement.
It was not exactly as if we thought he hadn’t come by
them honestly, but more as if we suggested to each other
that he couldn’t surely have got them in the way decorations
were usually got; it seemed somehow impossible
that he understood their importance. And there was still
something of that in our attitude when, later on, after
dinner, we had drifted into the salon with the rest for
our coffee, and by a kind of natural gravitation had found
ourselves in conversation with our compatriot, whose
jocose friendliness led young Homan to ask, half in fun
to be sure, where he had got all the decorations. He
showed certainly no very proper appreciation of their
importance by his answer:
“Bought ’em, at the Galleries Lafayette. Get any kind
you want there, y’ know.”
We laughed, all of us, for everybody had seen the cases
of medals and decorations at the Galleries. I believe for
an instant the youngster was half inclined to think he had
bought them. I know I was. As some kind of outlandish
practical joke, of course. It seemed, absurd as the
idea was, so much likelier than that he could have been
through the kind of experiences which result in being
decorated by foreign governments. And such an imposing
array! The scarlet ribbon of the Legion of
Honor, the green of the Japanese “Rising Sun,” the brilliant
stripes of Russian and English decorations, and
strange ones I had never seen before!
You see, he had turned out much more Middle West
than we had imagined. In the first ten minutes of our
conversation he had spoken of “home,” and mentioned
the name of the town—Dubuque, Iowa! And a few
minutes later he gave us, by the merest chance phrase or
two, involving the fact that his married sister lived “a
block and a half down the street” from his mother’s
house, a perfectly complete picture of that street—broad
and shady and quiet, of his mother’s yellow frame house,
and the other, white with a green lawn round it, where
his sister lived. And the point was that he was making
no effort toward such an effect. He was only being
His dinner companion, the Balkan officer, came in presently
and addressed Corey as “Doctor” (I adjusted myself
to that, still with the Dubuque setting, however), and
it was in the conversation following upon the new introduction
that the object of his being in Paris came out.
He told us, quite by the way, though not in the least depreciating
the importance of his mission—that he was in
Paris for a few days looking up anesthetics for the Serbian
army. He had been working, he said, down in the
Balkans since shortly after the outbreak of the war, in
charge of a sanitary section. They’d been out of anesthetics
for some time now—impossible to get them in—and
they’d been operating, amputating the poor devils’
legs and arms, without anesthetics; and now at last he’d
left things long enough to come up to Paris himself and
see what could be done. He was starting back the next
day or the day after that.
Corey, from Dubuque! In a makeshift Serbian field
hospital, in that terrible cold, performing delicate and
difficult operations—wholesale, as they must have been
performed—on wounded Balkan soldiers; probing for
bullets in raw wounds—that was a picture to set up
beside the one we had of him in Dubuque!
And yet—it wasn’t at all a question of doubt (we’d
read it all in the papers day after day); it wasn’t that we
didn’t believe Corey was telling the truth; his evidence
was too obvious for that—the picture didn’t somehow
succeed in painting itself—I can’t to this day say why.
Surely the Balkans just then—operations without anesthetics,
the pageantry and blood-red color of war—surely
there was pigment of more brilliant hue than any contained
in the mere statement that his married sister lived
a block and a half down the street from his mother’s.
But the picture wasn’t painted. Corey wasn’t the artist
to do it. Not, mind you, that he tried; he was as far
from trying to impress one, from affectation, as a boy of
I do remember my imagination taking me far enough
to think that if I were a soldier, and wounded, and had to
have a leg or an arm off, I couldn’t think of a man I’d
rather have do it than Corey. Oh yes, I believed him; I
knew he’d been down there in the Balkans, as he said,
and was going back again to-morrow—but I went right
on seeing him in Dubuque, practising his quiet, prosperous
profession in the same suite of offices his father had
used before him.
He himself lent, by the things he said, force and reality
to the illusion. He’d like nothing better, he declared,
than settling down in Dubuque for the rest of his life,
and enjoying a home of his own. He intended, in fact,
to do just that when he had finished the Balkan business.
“I’m that type,” he said. “I never was meant to knock
around the world like this.”
And he was that type, so much the type that it seemed
hardly credible he shouldn’t turn out the exception to
prove the rule. He had already, one would think, made
a sufficient divergence.
And that, I suppose—the feeling that no personality
could follow so undeviating a line, so obviously its own
path—was responsible for my impression, when I came
later to hear how completely he had followed it, of his
being because of it much more unique than he could ever
have made himself by turning aside. True enough, there
are people who, if they heard the tale, might maintain
that he could hardly have accomplished a more striking
divergence from type. I’ll have to confess I thought so
myself—at the first; certainly I thought so all the while
I listened, long afterward, to the quiet, though somewhat
nasal, and thoroughly puzzled voice of the gentle old man
from Dubuque, who seemed, as he recounted the story,
to be seeking in me some solution of Corey’s phenomenon.
I thought it even afterward, until, sitting there where
he had left me, I began slowly to orient the facts in relation
to Corey’s character. And then, all at once, it came
to me that it was exactly because Corey hadn’t diverged
that he did what he did. He went straight through everything
to his predestined end. Any other man would have
had stages, subtleties, degrees of divergence. But Corey
knew none of those things.
It was from old Mr. Ewing of Dubuque that I had my
first news of Corey after that night in the Paris hotel.
He must have gone back to his army in the Balkans the
next day, for we were to have seen him that night again
in case he had to stay over, and when I asked I was told
that Monsieur had gone.
Things kept reminding me of him. The names of
streets and places in Paris recalled his flat American
mispronunciation of them—mispronunciations which
sounded half as if he were in fun and half as if he didn’t
know any better, or hadn’t paid enough attention to learn
them correctly. I believe he saw, or was subconsciously
aware of, his own incongruity. Still, one would think
he’d have become, so to speak, accustomed to himself in
the strange rôle by then.
I think I must have spoken of him rather often to
people, so long as I remained in Paris; and it was, if not
exactly curious, at least a little less than one would expect,
that I never came in contact with any one else who
knew him, until that day, a little while ago, when I met,
in the smoking-car of a west-bound train out of Chicago,
the man who told me all there was, or ever will be, for
any man to tell about Corey.
He may have been sitting there near me all the time;
I don’t know. But then he was not the kind of man one
notices in a smoking-car, or any other place, for that matter.
Certainly you would never suspect that so gray and
uninteresting an envelope could inclose the manuscript
of a story like Corey’s. You had seen hundreds like him
before, and you knew what they contained—stereotyped
circular letters full of dull, indisputable facts, nothing
you wanted or cared to know. And it was precisely because
I wished later on one of those very dull facts that
I came to speak to my man.
The train coming to a sudden stop brought me out of
my oblivion, and, looking idly out of the window to see
what place it might be, I was seized by one of those fits
of petty annoyance incident to such interruptions, for the
train had run so far past the platform that I found it impossible
to see the name of the station. I got myself
out of my comfortable position, and tried, by turning
completely about, to see back to the station. But we had
gone too far. And then—I haven’t an idea why, for it
was of absolutely no importance to me—I looked about
for some one to ask. And nearest me, sitting rather uncomfortably
upright in his big leather chair, the little
rack at his elbow guiltless of any glass, and holding listlessly
in his hand the latest popular magazine, sat a gray-haired,
gray-suited old gentleman, looking lonesomely
out of his window.
“I beg pardon,” I said. “Can you tell me what place
He turned gratefully at the sound of my voice. “It’s ——,”
he told me. I’ve never been able to recall what
name he said, because, I suppose, of what came after.
It was certainly not surprising that he should think,
from my manner, that I had some interest in the place,
and he went on, after a moment’s hesitating silence, to
say, in his unobtrusive but unmistakable Middle-West
voice, that the town was a milling center—flour and
meal, and that kind of thing.
I saw that I had committed myself to something more
in the way of conversation than my laconic word of
thanks for his information and a lapse into silence. I
wondered what I could say. He was such a nice, kindly
old gentleman, and he would never in the world have addressed
any one first. I hit upon the most obvious sequence,
and asked if, then, he was familiar with that part
of the country. He said, oh yes, he was “a native of
“Indeed?” I said, for lack of anything else to say, and
his statement not having been a particularly provocative
“Yes,” he said. “My home is Dubuque.”
Dubuque! Dubuque! What was it I knew about
Dubuque? The name struck me instantly with a sense
of importance, as if it had rung the bell of a target
concealed out of sight. I sought about in my mind for
a full minute before I recalled, with a kind of start—Corey.
So many things had come in between—bigger things
than any one man—and overlaid all the pictures that
had gone before. Overlaid them with pigment so crude,
so roughly applied, that one neither saw nor remembered
anything else. All the nations of Europe loosed in the
Great War, and America straining hard at her worn
leash of neutrality. Small wonder that Corey, of Dubuque,
along with countless other memories of that pale
time, had faded into a dim, far perspective.
And yet, the sound of that name had brought him—as
clearly as I had seen him that night in Paris—before me.
I heard his voice, felt the vigor of his personality, saw
him throw back his head and laugh. And here, in the
chair next my own, and ready to talk, sat a man who, by
every rule of probability and chance, would be able to tell
me about him.
“I know a townsman of yours,” I said, and he evinced
at once a kind of mild and flattered surprise.
“From Dubuque?” he said. “Well, well! What’s
“Corey,” I said. “Doctor Corey.”
It had upon him a most unexpected effect; very much,
it seemed, the same effect his announcement had had upon
me the moment before. He leaned forward no more than
an inch, but his mild gray eyes kindled with a kind of
“You knew Jim Corey! Not here—not in Dubuque?”
“I met him in Paris,” I said, “quite a long while ago.”
“In Paris! Well, well—think of that!”
He shook his head, and regarded me suddenly with a
stronger and new kind of interest. I was, apparently, the
first person he had ever encountered who had really
known Corey abroad, and I could see that the fact had
established me immediately in his mind as an intimate
friend of Corey’s. I suppose I should have told him that
I had only seen Corey once; that I couldn’t, as a matter
of fact, claim more than a passing acquaintance. But if
I had, I should never have heard what I heard. And,
anyway, it wouldn’t have been, in the sense in which such
things count, exactly true—for it had never been, for
me at least, a one night’s acquaintance. I had seemed to
know Corey better in that one night than one knows most
men in a month of companionship. Yes, it was something
more than the curiosity of a passing acquaintance
that caused me to let the old fellow keep his impression.
“It’s queer,” he said, suddenly, throwing up his head,
and pressing open the pages of his popular magazine as
if he were about to begin to read, “he was a kind of relative
of mine. His father and I—third cousins on our
mothers’ side.” He broke off and regarded me again silently,
and I believe now that he was trying to persuade
himself not to go on, not to say anything more. But the
temptation, the maximum, I might say, of temptation,
combined with the minimum of danger that he should
ever see me again, overcame his natural shyness and discretion.
He seemed to decide, upon my ejaculation, to
“His house is just ’round the corner from mine. His
wife lives there now.”
“His wife!” The surprise was plain enough in my
voice. And this seemed, just for a second, to surprise
“You knew,” he said, “that he had married?”
I explained that I hadn’t seen Corey for several years,
and added that I had, however, understood that he was
thinking of settling down. It put, I could see, a different
face upon what he had to tell, for he seemed to adjust
himself, as if he must now go back to something he had
thought already understood between us.
“You didn’t know, then,” he said, “that he was
Dead! Corey dead! So that was what he had to tell.
There sprang up in my mind a vague, indefinite vision of
something heroic in connection with the Great War.
When, I asked, and where did he die?
“A little over three months ago, in Europe. I was his
There was something in the way he made his last statement
which lent it a kind of special importance. And it
proved, indeed, in the end, the fact of supreme importance.
And here, as if it were due me, he told me his
name—Ewing; and I told him mine.
“Yes,” he said. “I made a trip to New York to see a
man who’d been with him before he died. He brought
a message from Corey. Queer,” he said, “that message.
He must have been—a little off, you know, at the last.”
It was clear that something had occurred on his trip
to New York which had puzzled him then, and continued,
in spite of his explanation, to puzzle him still. It was
evident in the way he went back, presently, to the beginning,
as if he were stating a problem or building up a
He began by saying that he supposed nobody in Dubuque
ever had understood Corey—“and yet”—he
faced me—“you wouldn’t say he was hard to understand?”
I said that he had seemed to me to have an extremely
straightforward and simple personality; that that, to me,
had been one of his charms.
“Exactly!” he said, “exactly! That’s what we always
thought in Dubuque—and I’ve known Jim Corey
since the day he was born. Why, he’d go away on one
of his trips, and stay a year, sometimes two, and the day
after he’d get back you’d think he’d never been out of
Dubuque, except he was so glad to be home.”
And, talking with a growing and homely fluency, the
nasal quality of his rather pleasant voice increasing
according to the sharpness of his interest, he proceeded to
sketch in, with the fine brush of his provincialism, all the
details of that picture I had had so clearly of Corey that
night in Paris, more than four years before.
It was astonishing how right my picture had been; how
they, who had known him always, had been no better able
than I to visualize Corey outside Dubuque.
And it seemed to have been the merest chance which
had led him, the year of his graduation from medical
school, to take his first trip away from his native State.
He had “put himself” through college, and had come
out with all the school had to give, wanting more. It was
doubtful if Corey had ever read a novel through in his
life, but the college library yielded up treasures in scientific
and medical books whose plots he remembered as
easily as boarding-school girls remember the plots of
Laura Jean Libbey.
In the end he had happened to be engrossed in some
experiments or other with herbs, and it was that which
led him to decide upon going to China. He was going
to study Chinese herbs. And he had gone, straight, without
any stops en route, as he did everything. But when
he had been in Pekin two weeks the Boxer Rebellion
broke out, and there he was in the thick of it; and a god-send
he was, too, in the foreign legations, fighting and
caring for wounded by turns, day and night, youth and
strength and his fresh fine skill counting for ten in that
beleaguered handful of desperate men.
It was for that he had got his first decoration—Japan’s
Order of the Rising Sun, and a little later had
come from France, for the same service, and quite to the
surprise of Corey, the scarlet ribbon of the Legion of
There had been, of course, the appropriate furore—pictures
and full-page interviews in the San Francisco
papers on his way home, and Dubuque expecting to see
him come back transformed, a hero, conscious of honors
won. But he had arrived, to their amazement, merely
himself, and they had accepted him, after a day or two,
at his own valuation.
That was the first, and it seemed after that, although
he was always off to one of the far corners of the earth,
they were never able to look upon him when he came
home as a distinguished traveler returned. He was
simply, as he seemed to wish to be, “Jim,” or sometimes
“Doc” Corey come home again. And yet they knew
about the things he had done. They knew where he had
been. And they knew, too, about his decorations. They
had seen them on one or two occasions, when he had been
the guest of the evening at the “Business Men’s Banquet,”
and he had “dressed up,” the old gentleman said,
in a full-dress suit and all his decorations. “Two rows,
all kinds, by then.” One could imagine him doing that,
in a spirit of comic masquerade. And one could imagine
him also doing it merely to please them.
His wife, after he was married, used to get out his
decorations and show them to her women friends, and at
this Corey only laughed good-humoredly. But she never
showed them to men; she seemed to sense how that would
I asked when he had married her, and who she was.
She had been visiting friends, he said, in Dubuque,
when Corey came back, he believed, from the Balkan
War, in the spring of 1913. Pretty quick work they
made of it, too. In August that same summer they had
the wedding at her house in Des Moines. But it had surprised
nobody. They knew he’d been wanting to settle
down; and she was just the right kind of girl—nice and
wholesome, and fond of her home. At last, he said, he
was going to begin to live.
He had dropped at once into his place, exactly as if he
had never been away at all—as if, after his graduation,
he had come home to practise his profession. There was
nothing even about his house to indicate the traveler; no
obtrusive trophies of strange lands; no bizarre knick-knacks.
In a room in the attic were a half-full dunnage-bag,
a traveler’s kit, and an officer’s trunk, small size, the
lid pressed down but warped a little so that it would not
lock. And in the corner three pairs of heavy, discarded
boots, gathering dust. That was all.
And he was happy; naturally, sanely, unaffectedly
happy. There was no room for doubt about that. “Honesty,”
Mr. Ewing called it. He used that word over and
over again in relation to Corey’s psychology at that time.
“And there wasn’t,” he said, “a hypocritical bone in Jim
Corey’s body.” One could see what he meant, and see,
too, that it had, in his mind, some obscure bearing on
what came after.
He waited a little here before he went on, as if he were
going over to himself incidents too trivial to relate, but
which would not separate themselves from his memory
of Corey in those days.
“Well,” he began, abruptly, rousing himself from his
secret contemplation, “there was that winter, nineteen-thirteen,
and the next summer, nineteen-fourteen; and
then the European war began.”
“And he went!” I supplemented, involuntarily, since
from the trend of the narrative I had, of course, seen that
“No,” said Mr. Ewing in a surprisingly quiet tone of
contradiction. “No, he didn’t. I was like you. I
thought he’d go.”
“You thought he would!” I exclaimed, for it seemed
to me he had just been trying to make me see how unshakably
he had believed Corey to be fixed in Dubuque.
“Certainly,” he said. “You’d think it would be only
natural he’d want to go. Wouldn’t you?” he asked, as
if he had detected in my expression some disposition not
“I would,” I said, still wondering at the ease with
which he had brushed aside what I had foreseen was to
be his climax. For my imagination had long since outrun
his story to the end of the usual domestic tragedy,
wherein Corey had, at the first call of adventure, forsaken
without a word his home and his wife, to find
(had not Mr. Ewing told me in the very beginning of his
death, three months before, some place in Europe?) his
abrupt and unexpected dénouement.
There had been, then, something else. “But he did,”
I put forth, “finally go? You said, I think, that he died
“Oh yes—finally. But that, you see, wasn’t what
counted. It wasn’t the same. It was the way he went.”
“The way?” I repeated.
“Yes. He didn’t go the way, I mean, that I thought
he’d go. The way you thought, too.”
I said I didn’t understand; that I couldn’t see what
difference it made how he went, so long as he did go in
“It made all the difference,” said Mr. Ewing. “You
see, he didn’t rush off, at the first news of the fighting,
the way you’d think a man would. Why, we used to
read the papers and talk over the war news together, and
every day I’d expect to hear him say something about
going. He knew all the places, and the way everything
was over there, but he never seemed to care to be there
himself. He used to come round to my house just before
supper-time in the evenings and we’d sit on the porch and
talk, or maybe I’d go round to his porch. I asked him
one day if he didn’t want to go, and all he said was,
‘Why should I?’ And I said I didn’t know, it seemed
to me that he would. And he said he was comfortable
for the first time in his life; he never had liked bumping
around in all sorts of places; hated it as a matter of fact.
I asked him why, if that was the case, he’d kept it up
for so long, all those years; and he laughed, and said he
didn’t know; he never had been able to figure that out.”
Mr. Ewing fell silent here, tapping his right foot on
the carpet a little impatiently and looking speculatively,
yet without seeing, at me. I had the impression that he
felt he had utterly failed, up to now, in making some
subtle point in his story clear, and was considering how
best he might make me see. I was sure of it when, after
a longish pause, he continued, for he seemed to have
decided upon the abandonment of subtleties altogether,
and to give me, for my own interpretation, the facts as
Things had gone on without any change all that winter
and the next summer. In August Corey went to some
sort of convention of medical men in Philadelphia. He
was to have been gone something over two weeks. At
the end of that time Mrs. Corey had received a letter saying
that some experiments in which he was specially interested
had developed rather unexpectedly, and Corey,
together with several others, had been detailed to stay on
and work them out to their conclusion. He couldn’t say
just how many days it would take; he would let her know.
At the end of another two weeks Corey was still away.
The first phase of the experiments had unhappily come
to grief, and they had had to begin from the first again.
It was annoying, but since they had gone into it, there was
nothing else to be done. He would leave for home on the
moment of the work’s completion. Meantime there
would be little opportunity for letter-writing. She was
not to worry.
As the days went on Mrs. Corey began to regret not
having gone along in the beginning, as he had wanted
her to do. Mr. Ewing stopped in now and then to inquire.
Her reticence made him wonder if she might not
be hearing. It was plain that she did worry, but, as Mr.
Ewing said, she was not the talkative kind.
And then, one morning, just two months from the day
he had left, Corey arrived unexpectedly by the ten-fifty
train. Mr. Ewing, passing the house on his way home
that evening, had been surprised to see Corey, in his shirt-sleeves,
trimming shrubs in the garden. And he had
stopped to welcome him back, and they had talked about
the war in quite the old way, so that from that evening
on it was exactly the same as it had been before Corey
had gone to his convention in Philadelphia.
It appears that all this time a very natural intimacy was
growing up between these two, gentle old Mr. Ewing and
Corey. And I can imagine that Corey, who became, as it
were, the instantaneous friend of every one, had made in
his life very few actual contacts, few, if any, real and
intimate friendships. And perhaps that was why this
friendship, based as it was on such small outward manifestations
as talking over the news in the daily papers
together, had prospered. Then, too, there was the relationship,
distant enough to be free of demands.
Corey had returned from the Philadelphia trip the last
week in October. It was on a Sunday afternoon near the
middle of December that Mr. Ewing, sitting reading his
weekly illustrated paper, looked up to see through the
window Corey coming quickly along the walk. Mr.
Ewing was struck by something peculiar in his friend’s
appearance, something hurried in the set of his hat and
overcoat, yet as if he himself were entirely unconscious
He turned in at the gate, and Mr. Ewing got up and
opened the door. Corey came through it, Mr. Ewing
said, as if escaping from something outside, something
of which he was physically afraid. He almost pushed
past Mr. Ewing and into the room, and with scarcely a
glance to make sure they were alone, he spoke, and his
voice was strained like a note on a too taut violin string:
“She’s found it! This—where I’d had it hid!”
He held extended in his open hand, as if there were no
longer any reason for concealing it from any one, what
appeared to Mr. Ewing’s bewildered eyes to be a bit of
ribbon, striped green and red, and a bit of bronze metal
“What is it?” he asked, stupefied by the completeness
of the change that had come upon the man before him.
“It’s the Croix!” Corey’s voice was impatient, “The
Croix de Guerre!”
Mr. Ewing stared at the bright-colored thing, trying to
comprehend. Corey still held it outstretched in his hand,
and the bronze Maltese cross with its crossed swords
slipped through his fingers and hung down. Corey’s
voice was going on. Mr. Ewing had missed something.
“... So now she knows,” was the end of what he
heard—and in that instant his eye caught the words engraved
on the cross, République Française, and the full
meaning of its being there in Corey’s hand burst suddenly
The new French decoration! The Croix de Guerre!
“You’ve been there?” he managed to say. “You’ve
been over there?”
“How else would I get it?” said Corey, with a kind of
abandon, as if he were confessing now to some fullness
of shame. “You see, she’s right. I couldn’t resist.”
Mr. Ewing was lost. “Resist what?”
“This!” Corey closed his fingers now on the Croix.
“A new decoration!”
And then, as if every atom of his great, strong body
had suddenly succumbed to some long-growing exhaustion,
Corey dropped down into a chair and threw out his
arm across the table as if he would put away from him
as far as possible that offending decoration.
“But when?”—Mr. Ewing found himself reiterating—“when—when—you
haven’t been away—”
“Oh, yes,” said Corey. “You remember, in August.”
And here Mr. Ewing confessed that he thought for a
moment that Corey must be hopelessly mad. There was
the question of time, and a dozen other questions besides.
It seemed out of the realm of possibility, out of the realm
“How did you keep her from knowing?”
Mr. Ewing had not wanted to ask—had hoped the
point would explain itself—and Corey looked for a
moment as if he might be planning an evasion—then
braced himself and looked Mr. Ewing straight in the
eyes. A faint expression of scorn came round his mouth,
as if he spoke of another—a scoundrel who hardly deserved
“I left letters—dated ahead—with the scrubwoman
at the laboratory to mail.” He said it, took his eyes from
Mr. Ewing’s, and then he appeared to wait.
Mr. Ewing sat there filled with a kind of amazement,
touched with fear for what should come next, and suddenly
he became conscious that Corey was watching him
with what seemed a tremendous anxiety, waiting for him
to speak. And a moment later, apparently no longer able
to bear that silence, Corey leaned nervously toward Mr.
Ewing, and asked in the tone of one seeking an answer
of utmost importance: “You don’t see it? You don’t see
what she saw?”
“See what?” said Mr. Ewing—“what who saw?”
Yet he knew that Corey had meant his wife. It was she
who had found the Croix ... but what did he mean
she had seen?
“Don’t keep it back—just to be decent! She said it
was plain, plain enough for anybody to see. What I
want to know is if everybody knew it but me!”
“Knew what?” cried poor Mr. Ewing, lost more completely
now than before.
“Knew why I’ve done all the things I’ve done—run
all the risks. Why I went over there this time, in August,
without letting her know—God knows I didn’t know
why!—why I’ve always gone!”
“Why have you?” The question asked itself.
“Because I wanted the decorations! The damned
orders and medals and things! Because I couldn’t resist
getting a new one—wherever I saw a chance. Do you
believe a man could be as—as rotten as that, all his life,
and not know it himself?”
Slowly, then, Mr. Ewing began to see. And remotely
it began to dawn upon him—the thing “she” in her
anger had done. For there was no doubt that the thing
was done. The man’s faith and belief in himself, in the
cleanness and simplicity of his own motives, were gone—and
gone in a single devastating blow from which he
had not, and could never, recover. And, searching
for the right thing to say, Mr. Ewing stumbled, as
one always will, upon the one thing he should never have
“But you know better than that. You know it’s not
Corey’s answer was not argumentative; it only stated,
wearily, the fact which from the first had seemed to possess
“No, I don’t know it’s not so. I’ve never been able to
give any reasons for doing the things myself. You’ve
asked me why.... I couldn’t tell.”
“Why, it was youth,” said Mr. Ewing, and one can
imagine him saying it, gently, as an old-fashioned physician
might offer his homely remedy to a patient whose
knowledge exceeded his own. “Men do those things
when they’re young.”
And Corey, rejecting the simple, old-fashioned cure,
made an attempt at a smile for the kindness in which it
was offered. “All men are young, some time,” he said;
“all men don’t do them.”
“But you happened to be the kind who would.” And
at this Corey made no attempt to smile.
“That’s it!” he said. “I wasn’t the kind. I was the
kind to stay at home.... I know that. I was always
happier here in Dubuque. And now—this last— You’d
hardly say that was on account of my youth!”
“No—but it had got into your blood.”
Corey at this gave a start and looked up suddenly at
Mr. Ewing. “Into my blood— It’s the very word she
used! When she admitted I might not have known it
myself, she said she supposed it was just ‘in my
He made a gesture which began violently and ended in
futility, and sat silent, looking off steadily into space, as
if hearing again all those dreadful revelations of hers.
And once or twice Mr. Ewing, who sat helplessly by,
waiting, perhaps praying, for some inspiration, made a
valiant but utterly vain effort to put out his hand, to
show by some mere physical act, if no other, his unshaken
belief in his friend.
And so, when the need for speech had become imperative,
Mr. Ewing found himself saying something to the
effect that these things pass; that she had only been
angry, and had said the first thing that had come into
her mind. And Corey, realizing the extremity into which
he had led his friend, rose and, either ignoring or not
hearing, from the depth of the chasm into which he had
fallen, Mr. Ewing’s last remark, made some hurried attempt
at apology, and awkwardly moved toward the door.
Mr. Ewing had only been able to follow after, and say,
lamely, and in spite of himself, that he mustn’t say or
do anything he might be sorry for, and that they would
see each other again. And then he stood in the open door
and watched Corey go down the path to the gate, and
along the walk, until he had turned the corner, and so
out of sight.
And then he had gone back into the house and spent
the remainder of that afternoon trying to realize what
had passed, trying to decide upon what he should say the
next time they met.
But he had reached no conclusion, and in the end had
decided to leave it to chance. And Chance had solved his
problem with her usual original simplicity. She took
away the need for his saying anything at all; for the
following day the station cab drove up to Corey’s front
gate and stopped. The driver got down from his seat
and went up the walk and into the house. A moment
later he came out again, bearing on his shoulder the
small-size officer’s trunk, the lid forced down now and
locked, and in one hand, dragging slightly, a full dunnage-bag.
And after him followed Corey. And no one
followed him. No one came out on the porch to say
good-by. No one stood at the window. The driver put
the trunk on the seat beside him, and the dunnage-bag
into the seat beside Corey. And then, without a word or
a sign, they drove away toward the station.
It was understood in Dubuque after the next few days
that Corey had gone to help in the war; he had received
an urgent message from France.
And Mr. Ewing received, the day after Corey’s departure,
a little note of farewell, written in pencil, while
he was waiting for his train, and mailed at the station.
It said merely good-by, and that he hoped he would
The next week Mrs. Corey closed up the house and
went to Des Moines, to stay with her people, she said,
until her husband’s return.
And that was all Mr. Ewing had ever known of what
passed between those two, of the details that led to the
sudden and final decision to go. And it was all that he
had heard of Corey until that day, three months ago,
when there came to him the unexpected letter from the
man in New York, telling of Corey’s death, and of a
message and papers he had to deliver. Mr. Ewing had
replied at once that he would go, and had followed his
letter almost immediately. He had seemed to feel, ever
since that Sunday afternoon, when he had failed to be
of use, an increasing sense of responsibility.
He had met the man at his club; and I had, as he told
of the meeting, as he described the man, a curious impression
of actually seeing them there, in the big Fifth
Avenue club, sitting in deeply luxurious chairs and no
table between—the gentle, gray-haired, gray-eyed, gray-garbed
Mr. Ewing, who had never been in New York
City before; and the other, tall, very tall, with black hair,
black eyes, and brown burned skin, who looked, Mr.
Ewing said, as if he’d done all the things Corey had
It had been quite by chance that this man, whose name
was Burke, and Corey had been attached to the same section
and were thrown in that way a good deal together.
And his very first statement had shown, with all the force
of the casual phrase, how tremendously Corey had
“A queer fellow,” he said, “no one could understand.”
And he was a man, one would say, well accustomed to
the queerest of men.
Mr. Ewing said yes, he supposed one would call him
that, and asked just in what way Burke had thought
And Burke, it seemed, had had more than enough to
base the idea upon. He cast about in his mind to select
one out of the many queer things. And he had hit upon
the most revealing one of them all.
Corey, he said, had gone about covered with medals,
two rows, overlapping, on duty and off, all the time.
That in itself was queer, especially for an American.
Most men wore bars, but Corey had worn the whole
thing. And yet, Burke said, he was the least egotistical
man he had ever known. And he had seen him wince
when other men, passing, had smiled at sight of his decorations.
He could never make it out.
There was no wonder in that. Mr. Ewing, who knew
Corey well, and had, one might say, something to go on,
couldn’t make it out. And no more, for that matter,
could I. There was something in it a little bizarre, and
certainly alien. Surely no normal Anglo-Saxon American
had ever indulged in such extremes of self-flagellation
And then, abruptly and unbidden, there came into my
mind a story of the old West, the story of how in the
pioneer days a gambler, sitting down to play solitaire,
laid his gun on the table beside him and, if he caught himself
cheating, administered justice first hand by shooting
himself. To be sure, in those days a man was pretty certain
of playing a straight game. Well, so had Corey
been, too, sure of the straightness of his game. And I
have heard it vouched for that, even in those robust
times, the thing had been seen to happen, and to come,
with just that appalling simplicity of psychology, from
cause to effect, straight, and without hesitation.
The analogy grew, for Burke averred that the queerest
thing of all about Corey was that he had been the only
man he had ever seen lacking entirely the emotion of
fear. He volunteered on every sort of hazardous enterprise,
and came through safe when men beside him were
killed, time after time, protected, they had got to believe,
by the inscrutable quality of his fearlessness. It was,
Burke said, as if against some other secret consideration
death to Corey counted nothing at all.
Then there was something a little peculiar in so silent
a man having so many friends. Corey silent! Remembering
him, one could hardly credit that change. Burke
qualified that by saying that when he used the word
silent, he didn’t in any sense mean morose. Corey had
never been that. He merely hadn’t, as people somehow
seemed to expect him to do, talked. And what he had
meant by “friends” he wished to qualify, too. He
hadn’t meant pals. There had been nothing so active as
that. But there were ways to tell when a man was well
liked. For example, no one who knew him had ever seen
anything funny about Corey’s decorations, and they
never talked about it among themselves.
Somebody had once asked Corey how long he had been
over the first time. It was evident that he had been there
before, because of the Croix de Guerre he wore when he
came. And Corey had answered, about six weeks, or a
“And you got the Croix in that time?” An exclamation
forced out of the fellow’s astonishment, and bringing
from Corey an answer without a hint of rebuff, yet certainly
nothing that a man could call brag.
“You forget,” he said, with an almost imperceptible
glance down at his two rows of medals—“I knew the
The man had afterward said to Burke that he was
sorry he’d asked. But he didn’t see anything to be
ashamed of in the Croix—and Corey wore it where a
fellow couldn’t help seeing. There was, Burke said, a
queer kind of apology in it. No, there had been nothing
like brag in Corey’s answer. There had been none of that
in anything he had done. And he had been, according
to Burke, the best surgeon of them all, the best man at his
work. But of course he had come to disaster in the end.
A man can’t go on ignoring danger like that.
They were stationed at Jubécourt, outside Verdun, and
for months the struggle had raged, attack and counterattack,
for the possession of Hill 304. Corey had gone
up to the front poste de secour at Esnes, where in an
underground shelter fitted up in what had been the basement
of an ancient château, reduced now to ruins by the
German shells, he was giving first aid to the wounded
brought in from the trenches.
Word had come into the poste one night that an officer,
lying in a trench dugout, was too far gone to move. And
Corey had volunteered to go, alone, on foot, along the
zigzag communication trench that led to the dugout,
under the incessant shelling, and see what he could do.
And early that morning, about three o’clock, they had
been carried in, Corey and his officer—the only two who
had come out of that trench alive.
From the officer they had the story of what Corey had
done; not many words, to be sure, and little embellishment,
but such accounts need no flowers, no figures of
speech. The facts are enough, told in gasps, as this one
was, hurriedly, while yet there was strength, as one pays
a debt, all at once, for fear he may never again have gold
A trench torpedo had found its mark. And Corey,
bending above him, had deliberately braced himself, holding
his arms out, and had received in his stead the exploding
pieces of shell. He raised himself on his elbow
to look at Corey, unconscious, on the next stretcher. He
wanted it understood. He sent for an orderly and dictated
a message which he managed to sign, and despatched
it post-haste to Staff Headquarters. And then
he resigned himself to the hands of those about him.
The news had come in to Jubécourt by telephone, and
just before dawn Burke had gone up to see what could
be done. When he reached the poste Corey had regained
consciousness, and was waiting for him. He had sent
word ahead that he was coming. And Corey was
wounded, Burke said, in a way no other man could have
withstood. And the “queer” thing now was that he
knew it, and when Burke leaned over him there was a
gleam in his eyes as if he were keeping it there by his
own will power.
He seemed relieved then, and began at once—he had
saved a surprising amount of strength—to speak. He
knew Burke planned to go to New York, and he wanted
him to deliver some papers. They were in his bag, at
Jubécourt; he told him where he should find the key, and
then he asked Burke to write down Mr. Ewing’s name
It was while Burke was crossing the dim, lamp-lighted
room in search of a pencil or pen that some one had
stopped him to say that the General was coming at eleven
to confer upon Corey the Medaille Militaire. It had
given Burke a distinct kind of shock. Could it be, he
wondered, that that was what Corey had saved himself
for? For Corey knew, as well as they, that the Medaille
Militaire was the one decoration never conferred upon
dead men. He had gone on and borrowed the pen, and
on the way back had asked if he might be allowed to tell
Corey. It might, he said, do him some good. That news
had turned the balance for more than one man.
But when, a few moments later, Burke, receiving permission,
had told Corey his news, he had been for a
moment afraid that the balance had turned—and in the
wrong way. Corey had seemed hardly to comprehend,
and then a sudden unaccountable change had come over
“The Medaille!” he gasped. “What time did you
“Eleven,” Burke told him—“three hours from now.”
He seemed then to be considering something deep
within himself, so that Burke hardly heard when he said,
“That’s time enough.” And Burke, thinking that he
had been measuring his strength against the time, hastened
a little awkwardly to reassure him. But Corey,
ignoring his assurance, had seemed to arrive at some
“Did you put down the name?” he asked.
Burke had forgotten the name, and Corey told him
again, patiently, spelling out the address. He watched
while Burke wrote.
“The papers all go to him.” He was silent a moment.
Then: “Listen,” he said. “Will you give him this message
Burke promised, whatever he wished, word for word.
“Tell him,” he said, “that it breaks a man’s luck to
know what he wants.”
“Yes,” said Burke. “Is there anything else?”
The strength had drained out of Corey’s voice with the
last words. Again he waited while he seemed to decide.
And when he spoke, at last, a strange gentleness had
come into his tone, so that Burke was not surprised to
hear that the message was meant now for a woman.
“Tell him,” said Corey, “there’s no use letting her
know about the Medaille Militaire.”
And although Burke had divined some obscure meaning
in Corey’s words, he was yet not quite certain that he
had heard aright. “You mean that she’s not to know?”
Corey nodded his head, yes, and Burke saw that he was
no longer able to speak. Turning, he motioned an orderly
to his side, and whispered that he was afraid Corey
would never last until eleven.
The orderly sped away, and a moment later the French
doctor in charge stood beside Corey’s stretcher, opening
his hypodermic case.
And then, Burke said, he had done what seemed to him
the “queerest” thing of all. He had made a signal for
Burke to come nearer, and when he had leaned down, he
said, “Remember to tell him I didn’t take that.” He was
looking at the hypodermic the doctor held in his hand.
“But the Medaille—” began Burke, and was stopped
by the strangeness of Corey’s expression. He had, he
said, smiled a secret mysterious smile, and closed his eyes
with a curious look of contentment.
And even the French doctor had seen, by something
in his faint gesture of refusal, that Corey would never
submit to his restorative. He put the case down on a
box, with a nod to the orderly, in case Corey should
change his mind.
And Burke had stayed by until the Division General,
just half an hour too late, had arrived at exactly eleven
o’clock. Corey had not changed his mind....
That, then, was the end of the story.
So much affected was I at the nature of poor Corey’s
death that I almost forgot Mr. Ewing, sitting there across
from me in our comfortable smoking-car, and that he
might, in all decency, expect some comment from me.
Indeed, I think I should have forgotten altogether if I
had not felt after a little a relaxation of his long-continued
gaze, and I knew he was going to speak.
“Why,” he said, “do you think he didn’t want her to
So that was the thing which had puzzled him in New
York, the thing which still puzzled him now.
Well, it had puzzled me, too; and I could give him no
answer, except to confess that I didn’t know. But long
after the train had passed through Dubuque, and Mr.
Ewing and I had said good-by, an answer, perhaps right,
perhaps wrong, presented itself to my mind.
If one followed Corey at all, one must follow him all
the way; perhaps he had wished to save her the pang
of an added disgrace.