'Flies : A Fantasy'
by Arthur Gleason
from his book ‘Golden Lads’ 1916

Never a Dearth of Insects and Vermin

a comical photo of a not-so-comical affliction - fleas and insects


Outside the window stretched the village street, flat, with bits of dust and dung rising on the breaths of wind and volleying into rooms upon the tablecloth and into pages of books. It was a street of small yellow brick houses, a shapeless church, a convent school— freckled buildings, dingy. Up and down the length of it, it was without one touch of beauty. It gave back dust in the eyes. It sounded with thunder of transports, rattle of wagons, soft whirr of officers' speed cars, yelp of motor horns, and the tap-tap of wooden shoes on tiny peasants, boys and girls. A little sick black dog slunk down the pavement, smelling and staring. A cart bumped over the cobbles, the horse with a great tumor in its stomach, the stomach as if blown out on the left side, and the tumor with a rag upon it where it touched the harness.

Inside the window, a square room with a litter of six-penny novels in a corner, fifty or sixty books flung haphazard, some of them open with the leaves crushed back by the books above. In another corner, a heap of commissariat stuff, tins of bully beef, rabbit, sardines, herring, and glasses of jam, and marmalade. On the center table, a large jug of marmalade, ants busy in the yellow trickle at the rim. Filth had worked its way into the red table-cover. Filth was on every object in the room, like a soft mist, blurring the color and outlines of things. In the corners, under books and tins, insects moved, long, thin, crawling. A hot noon sun came dimly through the dirty glass of the closed window, and slowly baked a sleeping man in the large plush armchair. Around the chair, as if it were a promontory in a heaving sea, were billows of stale crumpled newspapers, some wadded into a ball, others torn across the page, all flung aside in ennui.

The face of the man was weary and weak. It showed all of his forty-one years, and revealed, too, a great emptiness. Flies kept rising and settling again on the hands, the face, and the head of the man—moist flies whose feet felt damp on the skin. They were slow and languid flies which wanted to settle and stay. It was his breathing that made them restless, but not enough to clear them away, only enough to make a low buzzing in the sultry room. Across the top of his head a bald streak ran from the forehead, and it was here they returned to alight, after each twitching and heave of the sunken body.

In the early months he had fought a losing fight with them. The walls and ceiling and panes of glass were spotted with the marks of his long battle. But his foes had advanced in ever-fresh force, clouds and swarms of them beyond number. He had gone to meet them with a wire-killer, and tightly rolled newspapers. He had imported fly paper from Dunkirk. But they could afford to sacrifice the few hundreds, which his strokes could reach, and still overwhelm him. Lately, he had given up the struggle, and let them take possession of the room. They harassed him when he read, so he gave up reading. They got into the food, so he ate less. Between his two trips to the front daily at 8 A.M. and 2 P.M., he slept. He found he could lose himself in sleep. Into that kingdom of sleep, they could not enter. As the weeks rolled on, he was able to let himself down more and more easily into silence. That became his life. A slothfulness, a languor, even when awake, a half-conscious forcing of himself through the routine work, a looking forward to the droning room, and then the settling deep into the old plush chair, and the blessed unconsciousness.

He drove a Red Cross ambulance to the French lines at Nieuport, collected the sick and wounded soldiers and brought them to the Poste de Secours, two miles back of the trenches. He lived a hundred feet from the Poste, always within call. But the emergency call rarely came. There were only the set runs, for the war had settled to its own regularity. A wonderful idleness hung over the lines, where millions of men were unemployed, waiting with strange patience for some unseen event. Only the year before, these men were chatting in cafés, and busy in a thousand ways. Now, the long hours of the day were lived without activity in thoughtless routine.

Under the routine there was always the sense of waiting for a sudden crash and horror.

The man was an English gentleman. It was his own car he had brought, paid for by him, and he had offered his car and services to the Fusiliers Marins. They had been glad of his help, and for twelve months he had performed his daily duty and returned to his loneliness. The men under whom he worked were the French doctors of the Poste—the chief doctor, Monsieur Claude-Marie Le Bot, with four stripes on his arm, and the courteous, grave administrator, Eustache-Emmanuel Couillandre, a three-stripes man, and a half dozen others, of three stripes and two. They had welcomed him to their group when he came to them from London. They had found him lively and likable, bringing gossip of the West End with a dash of Leicester Square. Then slowly a change had come on him. He went moody and silent.

"What's the matter with you?" asked Doctor Le Bot one day.

"Nothing's the matter with me," answered the man. "It's war that's the matter."

"What do you mean by that?" put in one of the younger doctors.

"The trouble with war," began the man slowly, "isn't that there's danger and death. They are easy. The trouble with war is this. It's dull, damned deadly dull. It's the slowest thing in the world. It wears away at your mind, like water dripping on a rock. The old Indian torture of letting water fall on your skull, drop by drop, till you went raving crazy, is nothing to what war does to the mind of millions of men. They can't think of anything else but war, and they have no thoughts about that. They can't talk of another blessed thing, and the result is they have nothing to say at all."

As he talked a flush came into his face. He gathered speed, while he spoke, till his words came with a rush, as if he were relieving himself of inner pain.

"Have you ever heard the true inside account of an Arctic expedition?" he went on. "There 's a handful of men locked up inside a little ship for thirteen or fourteen months. Nothing to look out on but snow and ice, one color and a horizon full of it. Nothing to dream of but arriving at a Pole—and that is a theoretical point in infinite space. There's no such thing. The midnight sun and the frozen stuff get on their nerves— same old sun in the same old place, same kind of weather. What happens? The natural thing, of course. They get so they hate each other like poison. They go around with a mad on. They carry hate against the commander and the cook and the fellow whose berth creaks every time he shifts. Each man thinks the shipload is the rottenest gang ever thrown together. He wonders why they didn't bring somebody decent along. He gets to scoring up grudges against the different people, and waits his chance to get back."

He stopped a minute, and looked around at the doctors, who were giving him close attention. Then he went on with the same intensity.

"Now that's war, only war is more so. Here you are in one place for sixteen months. You shovel yourself into a stinking hole in the ground. At seven in the morning, you boil yourself some muddy coffee that tastes like the River Thames at Battersea Bridge. You take a knife that's had knicks hacked out of it, and cut a hunk of dry bread that chews like sand. You eat some 'bully beef out of a tin, same tinned stuff as you 've been eating ever since your stomach went on strike a year ago. Once a week for a treat, you cut a steak off the flank of a dead horse. That tastes better, because it's fresh meat. When you 're sent back a few miles, en piquet, you sleep in a village that looks like Sodom after the sulphur struck it. Houses singed and tumbled, dead bodies in the ruins, a broken-legged dog, trailing its hind foot, in front of the house where you are. Tobacco— surely. You 'd die if you didn't have a smoke. But the rotten little cigarettes with no taste to them that smoke like chopped hay. And the cigars made out of rags and shredded toothpicks—"

"Here, have a cigarette," suggested the youngest doctor.

But the man was too busy in working out his own thoughts.

"The whole thing," he continued, "is a mixture of a morgue and a hospital—only those places have running water, and people in white aprons to tidy things up. And a battle— Three days under bombardment, living in the cellar. The guns going off five, six times to the minute, and then waiting a couple of hours and dropping one in, next door. The crumpling noise when a little brick house caves in, like a man when you hit him in the stomach, just going all together in a heap. And the sick smell that comes out of the mess from plaster and brick dust.

"And getting wounded, that's jolly, isn't it? Rifle ball through your left biceps. Dick walks you back to the dressing station. Doctor busy at luncheon with a couple of visiting officers. Lie down in the straw. Straw has a pleasant smell when it 's smeared with iodine and blood. Wait till the doctor has had his bottle of wine.

" 'Nothing very much,' he says, when he gets around to you. Drops some juice in, ties the white rag around, and you go back to your straw. Three, four hours, and along come the body snatchers—the chauffeur chap doesn't know how to drive, bumps into every shell hole for seven miles. Every half mile, drive down into the ditch mud, to get out of the way of some ammunition wagons going to the front. The wheel gets stuck. Put on power, in jumps, to bump the car out. Every jerk tears at your open sore, as if the wheel had got stuck in your arm and was being pulled out. Two hours to do the seven miles. Get to the field hospital. No time for you. Lie on your stretcher in the court, where the flies swarm on you. Always flies. Flies on the blood of the wounded, glued to the bandage. Flies on the face of the dead."

So he had once spoken and left them wondering. But that whirling burst of words was long before, in those earlier days of his work. Nothing like that had happened in weeks. No such vivid pictures lighted him now. The man slept on.

There was a scratching at the window, then a steady tapping, then a resounding fist on the casement. Gradually, the sleeping man came up through the deep waters of unconsciousness. His eyes were heavy. He sat a moment, brooding, then turned toward the insistent noise.

"Monsieur Watts!" said a voice.

"Yes," answered the man. He stretched himself, and raised the sash. A brisk little French Marin was at the window.

"The doctors are at luncheon. They are waiting for you," the soldier said in rapid Breton French; "to-day you are their guest."

"Of course," replied the man, "I had forgotten. I will come at once."

He stretched his arms over his head—a tall figure of a man, but bent at the shoulders, as if all the dreariness of his surroundings had settled there. He had the stoop of an old man, and the walk. He stepped out of his room, into the street, and stood a moment in the midday sunshine, blinking. Then he walked down the village street to the Poste, and pushed through the dressing-rooms to the dining-room at the rear. The doctors looked up as he entered. He nodded, but gave no speech back for their courteous, their cordial greeting. In silence he ate the simple relishes of sardines and olives. Then the treat of the luncheon was brought in by the orderly. It was a duckling, taken from a refugee farm, and done to a brown crisp. The head doctor carved and served it.

"See here," said Watts loudly. He lifted his wing of the duckling where a dead fly was cooked in with the gravy. He pushed his chair back. It grated shrilly on the stone floor. He rose. "Flies," he said, and left the room.

Watts was the guest at the informal trench luncheon. The officers showed him little favors from time to time, for he had served their wounded faithfully for many months. It is the highest honor they can pay when they admit a civilian to the first line of trenches. Shelling from Westend was mild and inaccurate, going high overhead and falling with a mutter into the seven-times wrecked and thoroughly deserted houses of Nieuport village. But the sound of it gave a gentle tingle to the act of eating. There was occasional rifle fire, the bullet singing close.

"They 're improving," said the Commandant, "a fellow reached over the trench this morning for his Billy-can, and they got him in the hand."

Two Marins cleared away the plank on which bread and coffee and tinned meat had been served.

The hot August sun cooked the loose earth, and heightened the smells of food. A swarm of flies poured over the outer rim and dropped down on squatting men and the scattered commissariat. Watts was sitting at a little distance from the group. He closed his eyes, but soon began striking methodically at the settling flies. He fought them with the right arm and the left in long heavy strokes, patiently, without enthusiasm. The soldiers brought out a pack of cards, and leaned forward for the deal. Suddenly Watts rose, lifted his arms above the trench, and deliberately stretched. Three faint cracks sounded from across the hillock, and he tumbled out at full length, as if some one had flung him away. The men hastened to him, coming crouched over but swiftly.

"Got him in the right arm," said the Commandant.

"Thank God," muttered Watts, sleepily.

It was the Convent Hospital of Furnes. There was quiet in the ward of twenty-five beds, where side by side slept the wounded of France and Germany and Belgium and England. Suddenly, a resounding whack rang through the ward. A German boy jumped up sitting in his cot. The sound had awakened memories. He looked over to the tall Englishman in the next cot, who had struck out at one of the heavy innumerable flies, who hover over wounded men, and pry down under bandages.

“Let me tell you," said the youth eagerly, "I have a preparation—l’m a chemist, you know— I've worked out a powder that kills flies."

Watts looked up from his pillow. His face was weary.

"It's sweet, you know, and attracts them," went on the boy, "then the least sniff of it finishes them. They trail away, and die in a few minutes. You can clear a room in half an hour. Then all you have to do is to sweep up."

"See here," he said, "I'll show you. Sister," he called. The nurse hurried to his side.

"Sister? You were kind enough to save my kit. May I have it a moment?"

He took out a tin flask, and squeezed it—a brown powder puffed through the pin-point holes at the mouth. It settled in a dust on the white coverlet.

"Please be very quiet," he said. He settled back, as if for sleep, but his half-shut eyes were watchful. A couple of minutes passed, then a fly circled his head, and made for the spot on the spread. It nosed its way in, crawled heavily a few inches up the coverlet, and turned its legs up. Two more came, alighted, sniffed and died.

"You see," he said.

Next day, the head of the Coxyde Poste motored over to Furnes for a call on his wounded helper.

"Where does all that chatter come from?" he asked.

Sister Teresa smiled. "It's your silent friend," she said. "He is the noisiest old thing in the ward."

"Talking to himself?" inquired the doctor.

"Have a look for yourself," urged the nurse. They stepped into the ward, and down the stone floor, till they came to the supply table. Here they pretended to busy themselves with lint.

"Most interesting," Watts was saying. "That is a new idea to me. Here they've been telling me for a year that there 's no way but the slow push, trench after trench—"

"Let me say to you," interrupted the Saxon lad.

"You will pardon me, if I finish what I am saying," went on Watts in full tidal flow. "What was it I was saying? Oh, yes, I remember—that slow hard push is not the only way, after all. You tell me—"

"That's the way it is all day long," explained the sister. "Chatter, chatter, chatter. They are telling each other all they know. You would think they would get fed up. But as fast as one of them says something, that seems to be a new idea to the other. Mr. Watts acts like a man who has been starved."

Watts caught sight of his friend.

"We've killed all the flies," he shouted.


a German delousing establishment


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