Part 2 out of 6
When we are not chatting we read aloud. There is a very fine library
at the factory, selected by Madame Valentine Gozlan from works of an
educational or moral kind, for the use of the staff. Marie, whose
imagination goes further afield than mine, and who has not my
anxieties, directs the reading. She opens a book and reads aloud while
I take my ease, looking at the pastel portrait which hangs just
opposite the window. On the glass which entombs the picture I see the
gently moving and puffing reflection of the fidgety window curtains,
and the face of that glazed portrait becomes blurred with broken
streaks and all kinds of wave marks.
"Ah, these adventures!" Marie sometimes sighs, at the end of a chapter;
"these things that never happen!"
"Thank Heaven," I cry.
"Alas," she replies.
Even when people live together they differ more than they think!
At other times Marie reads to herself, quite silently. I surprise her
absorbed in this occupation. It even happens that she applies herself
thus to poetry. In her set and stooping face her eyes come and go over
the abbreviated lines of the verses. From time to time she raises them
and looks up at the sky, and--vastly further than the visible sky--at
all that escapes from the little cage of words.
And sometimes we are lightly touched with boredom.
* * * * * *
One evening Marie informed me that the canary was dead, and she began
to cry, as she showed me the open cage and the bird which lay at the
bottom, with its feet curled up, as rumpled and stark as the little
yellow plaything of a doll. I sympathized with her sorrow; but her
tears were endless, and I found her emotion disproportionate.
"Come now," I said, "after all, a bird's only a bird, a mere point that
moved a little in a corner of the room. What then? What about the
thousands of birds that die, and the people that die, and the poor?"
But she shook her head, insisted on grieving, tried to prove to me that
it was momentous and that she was right.
For a moment I stood bewildered by this want of understanding; this
difference between her way of feeling and mine. It was a disagreeable
revelation of the unknown. One might often, in regard to small
matters, make a multitude of reflections if one wished; but one does
* * * * * *
My position at the factory and in our quarter is becoming gradually
stronger. By reason of a regular gratuity which I received, we are at
last able to put money aside each month, like everybody.
"I say!" cried Crillon, pulling me outside with him, as I was coming in
one evening; "I must let you know that you've been spoken of
spontanially for the Town Council at the next renewment. They're
making a big effort, you know. Monsieur the Marquis is going to stand
for the legislative elections--but we've walked into the other
quarter," said Crillon, stopping dead. "Come back, come back."
We turned right-about-face.
"This patriotic society of Monsieur Joseph," Crillon went on, "has done
a lot of harm to the anarchists. We've all got to let 'em feel our
elbows, that's necessential. You've got a foot in the factory, eh?
You see the workmen; have a crack of talk with 'em. You ingreasiate
yourself with 'em, so's some of 'em'll vote for you. For _them's_ the
"It's true that I am very sympathetic to them," I murmured, impressed
by this prospect.
Crillon came to a stand in front of the Public Baths. "It's the
seventeenth to-day," he explained; "the day of the month when I takes a
bath. Oh, yes! I know that _you_ go every Thursday; but I'm not of
that mind. You're young, of course, and p'raps you have good reason!
But you take my tip, and hobnob with the working man. We must bestir
ourselves and impell ourselves, what the devil! As for me, I've
finished my political efforts for peace and order. It's _your_ turn!"
He is right. Looking at the ageing man, I note that his framework is
slightly bowed; that his ill-shaven cheeks are humpbacked with little
ends of hair turning into white crystals. In his lowly sphere he has
done his duty. I reflect upon the mite-like efforts of the unimportant
people; of the mountains of tasks performed by anonymity. They are
necessary, these hosts of people so closely resembling each other; for
cities are built upon the poor brotherhood of paving-stones.
He is right, as always. I, who am still young; I, who am on a higher
level than his; I must play a part, and subdue the desire one has to
let things go on as they may.
A sudden movement of will appears in my life, which otherwise proceeds
A VOICE IN THE EVENING
I approached the workpeople with all possible sympathy. The toiler's
lot, moreover, raises interesting problems, which one should seek to
understand. So I inform myself in the matter of those around me.
"You want to see the greasers' work? Here I am," said Marcassin,
surnamed Pétrolus. "I'm the lamp-man. Before that I was a greaser.
Is that any better? Can't say. It's here that that goes on,
look--there. My place you'll find at night by letting your nose guide
The truth is that the corner of the factory to which he leads me has an
aggressive smell. The shapeless walls of this sort of grotto are
adorned with shelves full of leaking lamps--lamps dirty as beasts. In
a bucket there are old wicks and other departed things. At the foot of
a wooden cupboard which looks like iron are lamp glasses in paper
shirts; and farther away, groups of oil-drums. All is dilapidated and
ruinous; all is dark in this angle of the great building where light is
elaborated. The specter of a huge window stands yonder. The panes
only half appear; so encrusted are they they might be covered with
yellow paper. The great stones--the rocks--of the walls are
upholstered with a dark deposit of grease, like the bottom of a
stewpan, and nests of dust hang from them. Black puddles gleam on the
floor, with beds of slime from the scraping of the lamps.
There he lives and moves, in his armored tunic encrusted with filth as
dark as coffee-grounds. In his poor claw he grips the chief implement
of his work--a black rag. His grimy hands shine with paraffin, and the
oil, sunk and blackened in his nails, gives them a look of wick ends.
All day long he cleans lamps, and repairs, and unscrews, and fills, and
wipes them. The dirt and the darkness of this population of appliances
he attracts to himself, and he works like a nigger.
"For it's got to be well done," he says, "and even when you're fagged
out, you must keep on rubbing hard."
"There's six hundred and sixty-three, monsieur" (he says "monsieur" as
soon as he embarks on technical explanations), "counting the smart ones
in the fine offices, and the lanterns in the wood-yard, and the night
watchmen. You'll say to me, 'Why don't they have electricity that
lights itself?' It's 'cos that costs money and they get paraffin for
next to nothing, it seems, through a big firm 'at they're in with up
yonder. As for me, I'm always on my legs, from the morning when I'm
tired through sleeping badly, from after dinner when you feel sick with
eating, up to the evening, when you're sick of everything."
The bell has rung, and we go away in company. He has pulled off his
blue trousers and tunic and thrown them into a corner--two objects
which have grown heavy and rusty, like tools. But the dirty shell of
his toil did upholster him a little, and he emerges from it gaunter,
and horribly squeezed within the littleness of a torturing jacket. His
bony legs, in trousers too wide and too short, break off at the bottom
in long and mournful shoes, with hillocks, and resembling crocodiles;
and their soles, being soaked in paraffin, leave oily footprints,
rainbow-hued, in the plastic mud.
Perhaps it is because of this dismal companion towards whom I turn my
head, and whom I see trotting slowly and painfully at my side in the
rumbling grayness of the evening exodus, that I have a sudden and
tragic vision of the people, as in a flash's passing. (I do sometimes
get glimpses of the things of life momentarily.) The dark doorway to
my vision seems torn asunder. Between these two phantoms in front the
sable swarm outspreads. The multitude encumbers the plain that
bristles with dark chimneys and cranes, with ladders of iron planted
black and vertical in nakedness--a plain vaguely scribbled with
geometrical lines, rails and cinder paths--a plain utilized yet barren.
In some places about the approaches to the factory cartloads of clinker
and cinders have been dumped, and some of it continues to burn like
pyres, throwing off dark flames and darker curtains. Higher, the hazy
clouds vomited by the tall chimneys come together in broad mountains
whose foundations brush the ground and cover the land with a stormy
sky. In the depths of these clouds humanity is let loose. The immense
expanse of men moves and shouts and rolls in the same course all
through the suburb. An inexhaustible echo of cries surrounds us; it is
like hell in eruption and begirt by bronze horizons.
At that moment I am afraid of the multitude. It brings something
limitless into being, something which surpasses and threatens us; and
it seems to me that he who is not with it will one day be trodden
My head goes down in thought. I walk close to Marcassin, who gives me
the impression of an escaping animal, hopping through the
darkness--whether because of his name, or his stench, I do not know.
The evening is darkening; the wind is tearing leaves away; it thickens
with rain and begins to nip.
[Footnote 1: _Marcassin_--a young wild boar.--Tr.]
My miserable companion's voice comes to me in shreds. He is trying to
explain to me the law of unremitting toil. An echo of his murmur
reaches my face.
"And that's what one hasn't the least idea of. Because what's nearest
to us, often, one doesn't see it."
"Yes, that's true," I say, rather weary of his monotonous complaining.
I try a few words of consolation, knowing that he was recently married.
"After all, no one comes bothering you in your own little corner.
There's always that. And then, after all, you're going home--your wife
is waiting for you. You're lucky----"
"I've no time; or rather, I've no strength. At nights, when I come
home I'm too tired--I'm too tired, you understand, to be happy, you
see. Every morning I think I shall be, and I'm hoping up till noon;
but at night I'm too knocked out, what with walking and rubbing for
eleven hours; and on Sundays I'm done in altogether with the week.
There's even times that I don't even wash myself when I come in. I
just stay with my hands mucky; and on Sundays when I'm cleaned up, it's
a nasty one when they say to me, 'You're looking well.'"
And while I am listening to the tragicomical recital which he retails,
like a soliloquy, without expecting replies from me--luckily, for I
should not know how to answer--I can, in fact, recall those holidays
when the face of Pétrolus is embellished by the visible marks of water.
"Apart from that," he goes on, withdrawing his chin into the gray
string of his over-large collar; "apart from that, Charlotte, she's
very good. She looks after me, and tidies the house, and it's her that
lights _our_ lamp; and she hides the books carefully away from me so's
I can't grease 'em, and my fingers make prints on 'em like criminals.
She's good, but it doesn't turn out well, same as I've told you, and
when one's unhappy everything's favorable to being unhappy."
He is silent for a while, and then adds by way of conclusion to all he
has said, and to all that one can say, "_My_ father, he caved in at
fifty. And I shall cave in at fifty, p'raps before."
With his thumb he points through the twilight at that sort of indelible
darkness which makes the multitude, "Them others, it's not the same
with them. There's those that want to change everything and keep going
on that notion. There's those that drink and want to drink, and keep
going that way."
I hardly listen to him while he explains to me the grievances of the
different groups of workmen, "The molders, monsieur, them, it's a
matter of the gangs----"
Just now, while looking at the population of the factory, I was almost
afraid; it seemed to me that these toilers were different sorts of
beings from the detached and impecunious people who live around me.
When I look at this one I say to myself, "They are the same; they are
In the distance, and together, they strike fear, and their combination
is a menace; but near by they are only the same as this one. One must
not look at them in the distance.
Pétrolus gets excited; he makes gestures; he punches in and punches out
again with his fist, the hat which is stuck askew on his conical head,
over the ears that are pointed like artichoke leaves. He is in front
of me, and each of his soles is pierced by a valve which draws in water
from the saturated ground.
"The unions, monsieur----" he cries to me in the wind, "why, it's
dangerous to point at them. You haven't the right to think any
more--that's what they call liberty. If you're in _them_, you've got
to be agin the parsons--(I'm willing, but what's that got to do with
labor?)--and there's something more serious," the lamp-man adds, in a
suddenly changed voice, "you've got to be agin the army,--the _army_!"
And now the poor slave of the lamp seems to take a resolution. He
stops and devotionally rolling his Don Quixote eyes in his gloomy,
emaciated face, he says, "_I'm_ always thinking about something. What?
you'll say. Well, here it is. I belong to the League of Patriots."
As they brighten still more, his eyes are like two live embers in the
darkness, "Déroulède!" he cries; "that's the man--he's _my_ God!"
Pétrolus raises his voice and gesticulates; he makes great movements in
the night at the vision of his idol, to whom his leanness and his long
elastic arms give him some resemblance. "He's for war; he's for
Alsace-Lorraine, that's what he's for; and above all, he's for nothing
else. Ah, that's all there is to it! The Boches have got to disappear
off the earth, else it'll be us. Ah, when they talk politics to _me_,
I ask 'em, 'Are you for Déroulède, yes or no?' That's enough! I got
my schooling any old how, and I know next to nothing but I reckon it's
grand, only to think like that, and in the Reserves I'm
adjutant--almost an officer, monsieur, just a lamp-man as I am!"
[Footnote 1: A non-com., approximately equivalent to regimental
He tells me, almost in shouts and signs, because of the wind across the
open, that his worship dates from a function at which Paul Déroulède
had spoken to him. "He spoke to everybody, an' then he spoke to me, as
close to me as you and me; but it was _him_! I wanted an idea, and he
gave it to me!"
"Very good," I say to him; "very good. You are a patriot, that's
I feel that the greatness of this creed surpasses the selfish demands
of labor--although I have never had the time to think much about these
things--and it strikes me as touching and noble.
A last fiery spasm gets hold of Pétrolus as he espies afar Eudo's
pointed house, and he cries that on the great day of revenge there will
be some accounts to settle; and then the fervor of this ideal-bearer
cools and fades, and is spent along the length of the roads. He is now
no more than a poor black bantam which cannot possibly take wing. His
face mournfully awakes to the evening. He shuffles along, bows his
long and feeble spine, and his spirit and his strength exhausted, he
approaches the porch of his house, where Madame Marcassin awaits him.
The workmen manifest mistrust and even dislike towards me. Why? I
don't know; but my good intentions have gradually got weary.
One after another, sundry women have occupied my life. Antonia Véron
was first. Her marriage and mine, their hindrance and restriction,
threw us back upon each other as of yore. We found ourselves alone one
day in my house--where nothing ever used to happen, and she offered me
her lips, irresistibly. The appeal of her sensuality was answered by
mine, then, and often later. But the pleasure constantly restored,
which impelled me towards her, always ended in dismal enlightenments.
She remained a capricious and baffling egotist, and when I came away
from her house across the dark suburb among a host of beings vanishing,
like myself, I only brought away the memory of her nervous and
irritating laugh, and that new wrinkle which clung to her mouth like an
Then younger desires destroyed the old, and gallant adventures begot
one another. It is all over with this one and that one whom I adored.
When I see them again, I wonder that I can say, at one and the same
time, of a being who has not changed, "How I loved her!" and, "How I
have ceased to love her!"
All the while performing as a duty my daily task, all the while taking
suitable precautions so that Marie may not know and may not suffer, I
am looking for the happiness which lives. And truly, when I have a
sense of some new assent wavering and making ready, or when I am on the
way to a first rendezvous, I feel myself gloriously uplifted, and equal
This fills my life. Desire wears the brain as much as thought wears
it. All my being is agog for chances to shine and to be shared. When
they say in my presence of some young woman that, "she is not happy," a
thrill of joy tears through me.
On Sundays, among the crowds, I have often felt my heart tighten with
distress as I watch the unknown women. Reverie has often held me all
day because of one who has gone by and disappeared, leaving me a clear
vision of her curtained room, and of herself, vibrating like a harp.
She, perhaps, was the one I should have always loved; she whom I seek
gropingly, desperately, from each to the next. Ah, what a delightful
thing to see and to think of a distant woman always is, whoever she may
There are moments when I suffer, and am to be pitied. Assuredly, if
one could read me really, no one would pity me. And yet all men are
like me. If they are gifted with acceptable physique they dream of
headlong adventures, they attempt them, and our heart never stands
still. But no one acknowledges that, no one, ever.
Then, there were the women who turned me a cold shoulder; and among
them all Madame Pierron, a beautiful and genteel woman of twenty-five
years, with her black fillets and her marble profile, who still
retained the obvious awkwardness and vacant eye of young married women.
Tranquil, staid and silent, she came and went and lived, totally blind
to my looks of admiration.
This perfect unconcern aggravated my passion. I remember my pangs one
morning in June, when I saw some feminine linen spread upon the green
hedge within her garden. The delicate white things marshaled there
were waiting, stirred by the leaves and the breeze; so that Spring lent
them frail shape and sweetness--and life. I remember, too, a gaunt
house, scorching in the sun, and a window which flashed and then shut!
The window stayed shut, like a slab. All the world was silent; and
that splendid living being was walled up there. And last, I have
recollection of an evening when, in the bluish and dark green and
chalky landscape of the town and its rounded gardens, I saw that window
lighted up. A narrow glimmer of rose and gold was enframed there, and
I could distinguish, leaning on the sill that overhung the town, in the
heart of that resplendence, a feminine form which stirred before my
eyes in inaccessible forbearance. Long did I watch with shaking knees
that window dawning upon space, as the shepherd watches the rising of
Venus. That evening, when I had come in and was alone for a
moment--Marie was busy below in the kitchen--alone in our unattractive
room, I retired to the starry window, beset by immense thoughts. These
spaces, these separations, these incalculable durations--they all
reduce us to dust, they all have a sort of fearful splendor from which
we seek defense in our hiding.
* * * * * *
I have not retained a definite recollection of a period of jealousy
from which I suffered for a year. From certain facts, certain profound
changes of mood in Marie, it seemed to me that there was some one
between her and me. But beyond vague symptoms and these terrible
reflections on her, I never knew anything. The truth, everywhere
around me, was only a phantom of truth. I experienced acute internal
wounds of humiliation and shame, of rebellion! I struggled feebly, as
well as I could, against a mystery too great for me, and then my
suspicions wore themselves out. I fled from the nightmare, and by a
strong effort I forgot it. Perhaps my imputations had no basis; but it
is curious how one ends in only believing what one wants to believe.
* * * * * *
Something which had been plotting a long while among the Socialist
extremists suddenly produced a stoppage of work at the factory, and
this was followed by demonstrations which rolled through the terrified
town. Everywhere the shutters went up. The business people blotted
out their shops, and the town looked like a tragic Sunday.
"It's a revolution!" said Marie to me, turning pale, as Benoît cried to
us from the step of our porch the news that the workmen were marching.
"How does it come about that you knew nothing at the factory?"
An hour later we learned that a delegation composed of the most
dangerous ringleaders was preceding the army of demonstrators,
commissioned to extort outrageous advantages, with threats, from
Our quarter had a loose and dejected look. People went furtively,
seeking news, and doors half opened regretfully. Here and there groups
formed and lamented in undertones the public authority's lack of
foresight, the insufficient measures for preserving order.
Rumors were peddled about on the progress of the demonstration.
"They're crossing the river."
"They're at the Calvary cross-roads."
"It's a march against the castle!"
I went into Fontan's. He was not there, and some men were talking in
the twilight of the closed shutters.
"The Baroness is in a dreadful way. She's seen a dark mass in the
distance. Some young men of the aristocracy have armed themselves and
are guarding her. She says it's another Jacquerie rising!"
[Footnote 1: A terrible insurrection of the French peasantry in
"Ah, my God! What a mess!" said Crillon.
"It's the beginning of the end!" asserted old Daddy Ponce, shaking his
grayish-yellow forehead, all plaited with wrinkles.
Time went by--still no news. What are they doing yonder? What shall
we hear next?
At last, towards three o'clock Postaire is framed in the doorway,
sweating and exultant. "It's over! It's all right, my lad!" he gasps;
"I can vouch for it that they all arrived together at the Gozlans'
villa. Messrs. Gozlan were there. The delegates, I can vouch for it
that they started shouting and threatening, my lad! 'Never mind that!'
says one of the Messrs. Gozlan, 'let's have a drink first; I'll vouch
for it we'll talk better after!' There was a table and champagne, I'll
vouch for it. They gave 'em it to drink, and then some more and then
some more. I'll vouch for it they sent themselves something down, my
lad, into their waistcoats. I can vouch for it that the bottles of
champagne came like magic out of the ground. Fontan kept always
bringing them as though he was coining them. Got to admit it was an
extra-double-special guaranteed champagne, that you want to go cautious
with. So then, after three-quarters of an hour, nearly all the
deputation were drunk. They spun round, tongue-tied, and embraced each
other,--I can vouch for it. There were some that stuck it, but they
didn't count, my lad! The others didn't even know what they'd come
for. And the bosses; they'd had a fright, and they didn't half wriggle
and roar with laughing--I'll vouch for it, my lad! An' then,
to-morrow, if they want to start again, there'll be troops here!"
Joyful astonishment--the strike had been drowned in wine! And we
repeated to each other, "To-morrow there'll be the military!"
"Ah!" gaped Crillon, rolling wonder-struck eyes, "That's clever! Good;
that's clever, that is! Good, old chap----"
He laughed a heavy, vengeful laugh, and repeated his familiar refrain
full-throated: "The sovereign people that can't stand on its own
By the side of a few faint-hearted citizens who had already, since the
morning, modified their political opinions, a great figure rises before
my eyes--Fontan. I remember that night, already long ago, when a
chance glimpse through the vent-hole of his cellar showed me shiploads
of bottles of champagne heaped together, and pointed like shells. For
some future day he foresaw to-day's victory. He is really clever, he
sees clearly and he sees far. He has rescued law and order by a sort
The constraint which has weighed all day on our gestures and words
explodes in delight. Noisily we cast off that demeanor of conspirators
which has bent our shoulders since morning. The windows that were
closed during the weighty hours of the insurrection are opened wide;
the houses breathe again.
"We're saved from that gang!" people say, when they approach each
This feeling of deliverance pervades the most lowly. On the step of
the little blood-red restaurant I spy Monsieur Mielvaque, hopping for
joy. He is shivering, too, in his thin gray coat, cracked with
wrinkles, that looks like wrapping paper; and one would say that his
dwindled face had at long last caught the hue of the folios he
desperately copies among his long days and his short nights, to pick up
some sprigs of extra pay. There he stands, not daring to enter the
restaurant (for a reason he knows too well); but how delighted he is
with the day's triumph for society! And Mademoiselle Constantine, the
dressmaker, incurably poor and worn away by her sewing-machine, is
overjoyed. She opens wide the eyes which seem eternally full of tears,
and in the grayish abiding half-mourning of imperfect cleanliness, in
pallid excitement, she claps her hands.
Marie and I can hear the furious desperate hammering of Brisbille in
his forge, and we begin to laugh as we have not laughed for a long
At night, before going to sleep, I recall my former democratic fancies.
Thank God, I have escaped from a great peril! I can see it clearly by
the terror which the workmen's menace spread in decent circles, and by
the universal joy which greeted their recoil! My deepest tendencies
take hold of me again for good, and everything settles down as before.
* * * * * *
Much time has gone by. It is ten years now since I was married, and in
that lapse of time there is hardly a happening that I remember, unless
it be the disillusion of the death of Marie's rich godmother, who left
us nothing. There was the failure of the Pocard scheme, which was only
a swindle and ruined many small people. Politics pervaded the scandal,
while certain people hurried with their money to Monsieur Boulaque,
whose scheme was much more safe and substantial. There was also my
father-in-law's illness and his death, which was a great shock to
Marie, and put us into black clothes.
I have not changed. Marie _has_ somewhat. She has got stouter; her
eyelids look tired and red, and she buries herself in silences. We are
no longer quite in accord in details of our life. She who once always
said "Yes," is now primarily disposed to say "No." If I insist she
defends her opinion, obstinately, sourly; and sometimes dishonestly.
For example, in the matter of pulling down the partition downstairs, if
people had heard our high voices they would have thought there was a
quarrel. Following some of our discussions, she keeps her face
contracted and spiteful, or assumes the martyr's air, and sometimes
there are moments of hatred between us.
Often she says, while talking of something else, "Ah, if we had had a
child, all would have been different!"
I am becoming personally negligent, through a sort of idleness, against
which I have not sufficient grounds for reaction. When we are by
ourselves, at meal times, my hands are sometimes questionable. From
day to day, and from month to month, I defer going to the dentist and
postpone the attention required. I am allowing my molars to get
Marie never shows any jealousy, nor even suspicion about my personal
adventures. Her trust is almost excessive! She is not very
far-seeing, or else I am nothing very much to her, and I have a grudge
against her for this indifference.
And now I see around me women who are too young to love me. That most
positive of obstacles, the age difference, begins to separate me from
the amorous. And yet I am not surfeited with love, and I yearn towards
youth! Marthe, my little sister-in-law, said to me one day, "Now that
you're old----" That a child of fifteen years, so freshly dawned and
really new, can bring herself to pass this artless judgment on a man of
thirty-five--that is fate's first warning, the first sad day which
tells us at midsummer that winter will come.
One evening, as I entered the room, I indistinctly saw Marie, sitting
and musing by the window. As I came in she got up--it was Marthe! The
light from the sky, pale as a dawn, had blenched the young girl's
golden hair and turned the trace of a smile on her cheek into something
like a wrinkle. Cruelly, the play of the light showed her face faded
and her neck flabby; and because she had been yawning, even her eyes
were watery, and for some seconds the lids were sunk and reddened.
The resemblance of the two sisters tortured me. This little Marthe,
with her luxurious and appetizing color, her warm pink cheeks and moist
lips; this plump adolescent whose short skirt shows her curving calves,
is an affecting picture of what Marie was. It is a sort of terrible
revelation. In truth Marthe resembles, more than the Marie of to-day
does, the Marie whom I formerly loved; the Marie who came out of the
unknown, whom I saw one evening sitting on the rose-tree seat, shining,
silent--in the presence of love.
It required a great effort on my part not to try, weakly and vainly, to
approach Marthe--the impossible dream, the dream of dreams! She has a
little love affair with a youngster hardly molted into adolescence, and
rather absurd, whom one catches sight of now and again as he slips away
from her side; and that day when she sang so much in spite of herself,
it was because a little rival was ill. I am as much a stranger to her
girlish growing triumph and to her thoughts as if I were her enemy!
One morning when she was capering and laughing, flower-crowned, at the
doorstep, she looked to me like a being from another world.
* * * * * *
One winter's day, when Marie had gone out and I was arranging my
papers, I found a letter I had written not long before, but had not
posted, and I threw the useless document on the fire. When Marie came
back in the evening, she settled herself in front of the fire to dry
herself, and to revive it for the room's twilight; and the letter,
which had been only in part consumed, took fire again. And suddenly
there gleamed in the night a shred of paper with a shred of my
writing--"_I love you as much as you love me_!"
And it was so clear, the inscription that flamed in the darkness, that
it was not worth while even to attempt an explanation.
We could not speak, nor even look at each other! In the fatal
communion of thought which seized us just then, we turned aside from
each other, even shadow-veiled as we were. We fled from the truth! In
these great happenings we become strangers to each other for the reason
that we never knew each other profoundly. We are vaguely separated on
earth from everybody else, but we are mightily distant from our
* * * * * *
After all these things, my former life resumed its indifferent course.
Certainly I am not so unhappy as they who have the bleeding wound of a
bereavement or remorse, but I am not so delighted with life as I once
hoped to be. Ah, men's love and women's beauty are too short-lived in
this world; and yet, is it not only thereby that we and they exist? It
might be said that love, so pure a thing, the only one worth while in
life, is a crime, since it is always punished sooner or later. I do
not understand. We are a pitiful lot; and everywhere about us--in our
movements, within our walls, and from hour to hour, there is a stifling
mediocrity. Fate's face is gray.
Notwithstanding, my personal position has established itself and
progressively improved. I am getting three hundred and sixty francs a
month, and besides, I have a share in the profits of the litigation
office--about fifty francs a month. It is a year and a half since I
was stagnating in the little glass office, to which Monsieur Mielvaque
has been promoted, succeeding me. Nowadays they say to me, "You're
lucky!" They envy me--who once envied so many people. It astonishes
me at first, then I get used to it.
I have restored my political plans, but this time I have a rational and
normal policy in view. I am nominated to succeed Crillon in the Town
Council. There, no doubt, I shall arrive sooner or later. I continue
to become a personality by the force of circumstances, without my
noticing it, and without any real interest in me on the part of those
Quite a piece of my life has now gone by. When sometimes I think of
that, I am surprised at the length of the time elapsed; at the number
of the days and the years that are dead. It has come quickly, and
without much change in myself on the other hand; and I turn away from
that vision, at once real and supernatural. And yet, in spite of
myself, my future appears before my eyes--and its end. My future will
resemble my past; it does so already. I can dimly see all my life,
from one end to the other, all that I am, all that I shall have been.
At the time of the great military maneuvers of September, 1913, Viviers
was an important center of the operations. All the district was
brightened with a swarming of red and blue and with martial ardor.
Alone and systematically, Brisbille was the reviler. From the top of
Chestnut Hill, where we were watching a strategical display, he pointed
at the military mass. "Maneuvers, do they call them? I could die of
laughing! The red caps have dug trenches and the white-band caps have
bunged 'em up again. Take away the War Office, and you've only kids'
"It's war!" explained an influential military correspondent, who was
Then the journalist talked with a colleague about the Russians.
"The Russians!" Brisbille broke in; "when they've formed a
"He's a simpleton," said the journalist, smiling.
The inebriate jumped astride his hobby horse. "War me no war, it's all
lunacy! And look, look--look at those red trousers that you can see
miles away! They must do it on purpose for soldiers to be killed, that
they don't dress 'em in the color of nothing at all!"
A lady could not help breaking in here: "What?" Change our little
soldiers' red trousers? Impossible! There's no good reason for it.
They would never consent! They would rebel."
"Egad!" said a young officer; "why we should all throw up our
commissions! And any way, the red trousers are not the danger one
thinks. If they were as visible as all that, the High Command would
have noticed it and would have taken steps--just for field service, and
without interfering with the parade uniform!"
The regimental sergeant-major cut the discussion short as he turned to
Brisbille with vibrant scorn and said, "When the Day of Revenge comes,
_we_ shall have to be there to defend _you_!"
And Brisbille only uttered a shapeless reply, for the sergeant-major
was an athlete, and gifted with a bad temper, especially when others
The castle was quartering a Staff. Hunting parties were given for the
occasion in the manorial demesne, and passing processions of bedizened
guests were seen. Among the generals and nobles shone an Austrian
prince of the blood royal, who bore one of the great names in the
Almanach de Gotha, and who was officially in France to follow the
The presence of the Baroness's semi-Imperial guest caused a great
impression of historic glamour to hover over the country. His name was
repeated; his windows were pointed out in the middle of the principal
front, and one thought himself lucky if he saw the curtains moving.
Many families of poor people detached themselves from their quarters in
the evenings to take up positions before the wall behind which he was.
Marie and I, we were close to him twice.
One evening after dinner, we met him as one meets any passer-by among
the rest. He was walking alone, covered by a great gray waterproof.
His felt hat was adorned with a short feather. He displayed the
characteristic features of his race--a long turned-down nose and a
When he had gone by, Marie and I said, both at the same time, and a
little dazzled, "An eagle!"
We saw him again at the end of a stag-hunt. They had driven a stag
into the Morteuil forest. The _mort_ took place in a clearing in the
park, near the outer wall. The Baroness, who always thought of the
townsfolk, had ordered the little gate to be opened which gives into
this part of the demesne, so that the public could be present at the
It was imperious and pompous. The scene one entered, on leaving the
sunny fields and passing through the gate, was a huge circle of dark
foliage in the heart of the ancient forest. At first, one saw only the
majestic summits of mountainous trees, like peaks and globes lost amid
the heavens, which on all sides overhung the clearing and bathed it in
twilight almost green.
In this lordly solemnity of nature, down among the grass, moss and dead
wood, there flowed a contracted but brilliant concourse around the
final preparations for the execution of the stag.
The animal was kneeling on the ground, weak and overwhelmed. We
pressed round, and eyes were thrust forward between heads and shoulders
to see him. One could make out the gray thicket of his antlers, his
great lolling tongue, and the enormous throb of his heart, agitating
his exhausted body. A little wounded fawn clung to him, bleeding
abundantly, flowing like a spring.
Round about it the ceremony was arranged in several circles. The
beaters, in ranks, made a glaring red patch in the moist green
atmosphere. The hunters, men and women, all dismounted, in scarlet
coats and black hats, crowded together. Apart, the saddle and tackle
horses snorted, with creaking of leather and jingle of metal. Kept at
a respectful distance by a rope extended hastily on posts, the
inquisitive crowd flowed and increased every instant.
The blood which issued from the little fawn made a widening pool, and
one saw the ladies of the hunt, who came to look as near as possible,
pluck up their habits so that they would not tread in it. The sight of
the great stag crushed by weariness, gradually drooping his branching
head, tormented by the howls of the hounds which the whipper-in held
back with difficulty, and that of the little one, cowering beside him
and dying with gaping throat, would have been touching had one given
way to sentiment.
I noticed that the imminent slaying of the stag excited a certain
curious fever. Around me the women and young girls especially elbowed
and wriggled their way to the front, and shuddered, and were glad.
They cut the throats of the beasts, the big and the little, amid
absolute and religious silence, the silence of a sacrament. Madame
Lacaille vibrated from head to foot. Marie was calm, but there was a
gleam in her eyes; and little Marthe, who was hanging on to me, dug her
nails into my arm. The prince was prominent on our side, watching the
last act of the run. He had remained in the saddle. He was more
splendidly red than the others--empurpled, it seemed, by reflections
from a throne. He spoke in a loud voice, like one who is accustomed to
govern and likes to discourse; and his outline had the very form of
bidding. He expressed himself admirably in our language, of which he
knew the intimate graduations. I heard him saying, "These great
maneuvers, after all, they're a sham. It's music-hall war, directed by
scene-shifters. Hunting's better, because there's blood. We get too
much unaccustomed to blood, in our prosaic, humanitarian, and bleating
age. Ah, as long as the nations love hunting, I shall not despair of
Just then, the crash of the horns and the thunder of the pack released
drowned all other sounds. The prince, erect in his stirrups, and
raising his proud head and his tawny mustache above the bloody and
cringing mob of the hounds, expanded his nostrils and seemed to sniff a
The next day, when a few of us were chatting together in the street
near the sunken post where the old jam-pot lies, Benoît came up, full
of a tale to tell. Naturally it was about the prince. Benoît was
dejected and his lips were drawn and trembling. "He's killed a bear!"
said he, with glittering eye; "you should have seen it, ah! a tame
bear, of course. Listen--he was coming back from hunting with the
Marquis and Mademoiselle Berthe and some people behind. And he comes
on a wandering showman with a performing bear. A simpleton with long
black hair like feathers, and a bear that sat on its rump and did
little tricks and wore a belt. The prince had got his gun. I don't
know how it came about but the prince he got an idea. He said, 'I'd
like to kill that bear, as I do in my own hunting. Tell me, my good
fellow, how much shall I pay you for firing at the beast? You'll not
be a loser, I promise you.' The simpleton began to tremble and lift
his arms up in the air. He loved his bear! 'But my bear's the same as
my brother!' he says. Then do you know what the Marquis of Monthyon
did? He just simply took out his purse and opened it and put it under
the chap's nose; and all the smart hunting folk they laughed to see how
the simpleton changed when he saw all those bank notes. And naturally
he ended by nodding that it was a bargain, and he'd even seen so many
of the rustlers that he turned from crying to laughing! Then the
prince loaded his gun at ten paces from the bear and killed it with one
shot, my boy; just when he was rocking left and right, and sitting up
like a man. You ought to have seen it! There weren't a lot there; but
_I_ was there!"
The story made an impression. No one spoke at first. Then some one
risked the opinion. "No doubt they do things like that in Hungary or
Bohemia, or where he reigns. You wouldn't see it here," he added,
"He's from Austria," Tudor corrected.
"Yes," muttered Crillon, "but whether he's Austrian or whether he's
Bohemian or Hungarian, he's a grandee, so he's got the right to do what
he likes, eh?"
Eudo looked as if he would intervene at this point and was seeking
words. (Not long before that he had had the queer notion of sheltering
and nursing a crippled hind that had escaped from a previous run, and
his act had given great displeasure in high places.) So as soon as he
opened his mouth we made him shut it. The idea of Eudo in judgment on
And the rest lowered their heads and nodded and murmured, "Yes, he's a
And the little phrase spread abroad, timidly and obscurely.
* * * * * *
When All Saints' Day came round, many of the distinguished visitors at
the castle were still there. Every year that festival gives us
occasion for an historical ceremony on the grand scale. At two o'clock
all the townsfolk that matter gather with bunches of flowers on the
esplanade or in front of the cemetery half-way up Chestnut Hill, for
the ceremony and an open air service.
Early in the afternoon I betook myself with Marie to the scene. I put
on a fancy waistcoat of black and white check and my new patent leather
boots, which make me look at them. It is fine weather on this Sunday
of Sundays, and the bells are ringing. Everywhere the hurrying crowd
climbs the hill--peasants in flat caps, working families in their best
clothes, young girls with faces white and glossy as the bridal satin
which is the color of their thoughts, young men carrying jars of
flowers. All these appear on the esplanade, where graying lime trees
are also in assembly. Children are sitting on the ground.
Monsieur Joseph Bonéas, in black, with his supremely distinguished air,
goes by holding his mother's arm. I bow deeply to them. He points at
the unfolding spectacle as he passes and says, "It is our race's
The words made me look more seriously at the scene before my eyes--all
this tranquil and contemplative stir in the heart of festive nature.
Reflection and the vexations of my life have mellowed my mind. The
idea at last becomes clear in my brain of an entirety, an immense
multitude in space, and infinite in time, a multitude of which I am an
integral part, which has shaped me in its image, which continues to
keep me like it, and carries me along its control; my own people.
Baroness Grille, in the riding habit that she almost always wears when
mixing with the people, is standing near the imposing entry to the
cemetery. Monsieur the Marquis of Monthyon is holding aloft his
stately presence, his handsome and energetic face. Solid and sporting,
with dazzling shirt cuffs and fine ebon-black shoes, he parades a
smile. There is an M.P. too, a former Minister, very assiduous, who
chats with the old duke. There are the Messrs. Gozlan and famous
people whose names one does not know. Members of the Institute of the
great learned associations, or people fabulously wealthy.
Not far from these groups, which are divided from the rest by a scarlet
barrier of beaters and the flashing chain of their slung horns, arises
Monsieur Fontan. The huge merchant and café-owner occupies an
intermediate and isolated place between principals and people. His
face is disposed in fat white tiers, like a Buddha's belly.
Monumentally motionless he says nothing at all, but he tranquilly spits
all around him. He radiates saliva.
And for this ceremony, which seems like an apotheosis, all the notables
of our quarter are gathered together, as well as those of the other
quarter, who seem different and are similar.
We elbow the ordinary types. Apolline goes crabwise. She is in new
things, and has sprinkled Eau-de-Cologne on her skin; her eye is
bright; her face well-polished; her ears richly adorned. She is always
rather dirty, and her wrists might be branches, but she has cotton
gloves. There are some shadows in the picture, for Brisbille has come
with his crony, Termite, so that his offensive and untidy presence may
be a protest. There is another blot--a working man's wife, who speaks
at their meetings; people point at her. "What's that woman doing
"She doesn't believe in God," says some one.
"Ah," says a mother standing by, "that's because she has no children."
"Yes, she's got two."
"Then," says the poor woman, "it's because they've never been ill."
Here is little Antoinette and the old priest is holding her hand. She
must be fifteen or sixteen years old by now, and she has not grown--or,
at least, one has not noticed it. Father Piot, always white, gentle
and murmurous, has shrunk a little; more and more he leans towards the
tomb. Both of them proceed in tiny steps.
"They're going to cure her, it seems. They're seeing to it seriously."
"Yes--the extraordinary secret remedy they say they're going to try."
"No, it's not that now. It's the new doctor who's come to live here,
and he says, they say, that he's going to see about it."
"Poor little angel!"
The almost blind child, whose Christian name alone one knows, and whose
health is the object of so much solicitude, goes stiffly by, as if she
were dumb also, and deaf to all the prayers that go on with her.
After the service some one comes forward and begins to speak. He is an
old man, an officer of the Legion of Honor; his voice is weak but his
He speaks of the Dead, whose day this is. He explains to us that we
are not separated from them; not only by reason of the future life and
our sacred creeds, but because our life on earth must be purely and
simply a continuation of theirs. We must do as they did, and believe
what they believed, else shall we fall into error and utopianism. We
are all linked to each other and with the past; we are bound together
by an entirety of traditions and precepts. Our normal destiny, so
adequate to our nature, must be allowed to fulfill itself along the
indicated path, without hearkening to the temptations of novelty, of
hate, of envy--of envy above all, that social cancer, that enemy of the
great civic virtue--Discipline.
He ceases. The echo of the great magnificent words floats in the
silence. Everybody does not understand all that has just been said;
but all have a deep impression that the text is one of simplicity, of
moderation, of obedience, and foreheads move altogether in the breath
of the phrases like a field in the breeze.
"Yes," says Crillon, pensively, "he speaks to confection, that
gentleman. All that one thinks about, you can see it come out of his
mouth. Common sense and reverence, we're attached to 'em by
"We are attached to them by orderliness," says Joseph Bonéas.
"The proof that it's the truth," Crillon urges, "is that it's in the
dissertions of everybody."
"To be sure!" says Benoît, going a bit farther, "since everybody says
it, and it's become a general repetition!"
The good old priest, in the center of an attentive circle, is
unstringing a few observations. "Er, hem," he says, "one should not
blaspheme. Ah, if there were not a good God, there would be many
things to say; but so long as there is a good God, all that happens is
adorable, as Monseigneur said. We shall make things better, certainly.
Poverty and public calamities and war, we shall change all that, we
shall set those things to rights, er, hem! But let us alone, above
all, and don't concern yourselves with it--you would spoil everything,
my children. _We_ shall do all that, but not immediately."
"Quite so, quite so," we say in chorus.
"Can we be happy all at once," the old man goes on; "change misery into
joy, and poverty into riches? Come now, it's not possible, and I'll
tell you why; if it had been as easy as all that, it would have been
done already, wouldn't it?"
The bells begin to ring. The four strokes of the hour are just falling
from the steeple which the rising mists touch already, though the
evening makes use of it last of all; and just then one would say that
the church is beginning to talk even while it is singing.
The important people get onto their horses or into their carriages and
go away--a cavalcade where uniforms gleam and gold glitters. We can
see the procession of the potentates of the day outlined on the crest
of the hill which is full of our dead. They climb and disappear, one
by one. _Our_ way is downward; but we form--they above and we
below--one and the same mass, all visible together.
"It's fine!" says Marie, "it looks as if they were galloping over us!"
They are the shining vanguard that protects us, the great eternal
framework which upholds our country, the forces of the mighty past
which illuminate it and protect it against enemies and revolutions.
And we, we are all alike, in spite of our different minds; alike in the
greatness of our common interests and even in the littleness of our
personal aims. I have become increasingly conscious of this close
concord of the masses beneath a huge and respect-inspiring hierarchy.
It permits a sort of lofty consolation and is exactly adapted to a life
like mine. This evening, by the light of the setting sun, I see it and
read it and admire it.
All together we go down by the fields where tranquil corn is growing,
by the gardens and orchards where homely trees are making ready their
offerings--the scented blossom which lends, the fruit which gives
itself. They form an immense plain, sloping and darkling, with brown
undulations under the blue which now alone is becoming green. A little
girl, who has come from the spring, puts down her bucket and stands at
the roadside like a post, looking with all her eyes. She looks at the
marching multitude with beaming curiosity. Her littleness embraces
that immensity, because it is all a part of Order. A peasant who has
stuck to his work in spite of the festival and is bent over the deep
shadows of his field, raises himself from the earth which is so like
him, and turns towards the golden sun the shining monstrance of his
* * * * * *
But what is this--this sort of madman, who stands in the middle of the
road and looks as if, all by himself, he would bar the crowd's passage?
We recognize Brisbille, swaying tipsily in the twilight. There is an
eddy and a muttering in the flow.
"D'you want to know where all that's leading you?" he roars, and
nothing more can be heard but his voice. "It's leading you to hell!
It's the old rotten society, with the profiteering of all them that
can, and the stupidity of the rest! To hell, I tell you! To-morrow
look out for yourselves! To-morrow!"
A woman's voice cries from out of the shadows, in a sort of scuffle,
"Be quiet, wicked man! You've no right to frighten folks!"
But the drunkard continues to shout full-throated, "To-morrow!
To-morrow! D'you think things will always go on like that? You're fit
for killing! To hell!"
Some people are impressed and disappear into the evening. Those who
are marking time around the obscure fanatic are growling, "He's not
only bad, he's mad, the dirty beast!"
"It's disgraceful," says the young curate.
Brisbille goes up to him. "_You_ tell me, then, _you_, what'll happen
very soon--Jesuit, puppet, land-shark! We know you, you and your
filthy, poisonous trade!"
"_Say that again_!"
It was I who said that. Leaving Marie's arm instinctively I sprang
forward and planted myself before the sinister person. After the
horrified murmur which followed the insult, a great silence had fallen
on the scene.
Astounded, and his face suddenly filling with fear, Brisbille stumbles
and beats a retreat.
The crowd regains confidence, and laughs, and congratulates me, and
reviles the back of the man who is sinking in the stream.
"You were fine!" Marie said to me when I took her arm again, slightly
I returned home elated by my energetic act, still all of a tremor,
proud and happy. I have obeyed the prompting of my blood. It was the
great ancestral instinct which made me clench my fists and throw myself
bodily, like a weapon, upon the enemy of all.
After dinner, naturally, I went to the military tattoo, at which, by an
unpardonable indifference, I have not regularly been present, although
these patriotic demonstrations have been organized by Monsieur Joseph
Bonéas and his League of Avengers. A long-drawn shudder, shrill and
sonorous, took flight through the main streets, filling the spectators
and especially the young folks, with enthusiasm for the great and
glorious deeds of the future. And Pétrolus, in the front row of the
crowd, was striding along in the crimson glow of the fairy-lamps--clad
in a visionary uniform of red.
I remember that I talked a great deal that evening in our quarter, and
then in the house. Our quarter is something like all towns, something
like all country-sides, something like it is everywhere--it is a
foreshortened picture of all societies in the old universe, as my life
is a picture of life.
"There's going to be war," said Benoît, on our doorsteps in July.
"No," said Crillon, who was there, too, "I know well enough there'll be
war some day, seeing there's always been war after war since the world
was a world, and therefore there'll be another; but just now--at
once--a big job like that? Nonsense! It's not true. No."
Some days went by, tranquilly, as days do. Then the great story
reappeared, increased and branched out in all directions. Austria,
Serbia, the ultimatum, Russia. The notion of war was soon everywhere.
You could see it distracting men and slackening their pace in the going
and coming of work. One divined it behind the doors and windows of the
One Saturday evening, when Marie and I--like most of the French--did
not know what to think, and talked emptily, we heard the town crier,
who performs in our quarter, as in the villages.
"Ah!" she said.
We went out and saw in the distance the back of the man who was tapping
a drum. His smock was ballooned. He seemed pushed aslant by the wind,
stiffening himself in the summer twilight to sound his muffled roll.
Although we could not see him well and scarcely heard him, his progress
through the street had something grand about it.
Some people grouped in a corner said to us, "The mobilization."
No other word left their lips. I went from group to group to form an
opinion, but people drew back with sealed faces, or mechanically raised
their arms heavenwards. And we knew no better what to think now that
we were at last informed.
We went back into the court, the passage, the room, and then I said to
Marie, "I go on the ninth day--a week, day after to-morrow--to my depot
She looked at me, as though doubtful.
I took my military pay book from the wardrobe and opened it on the
table. Leaning against each other, we looked chastely at the red page
where the day of my joining was written, and we spelled it all out as
if we were learning to read.
Next day and the following days everybody went headlong to meet the
newspapers. We read in them--and under their different titles they
were then all alike--that a great and unanimous upspringing was
electrifying France, and the little crowd that we were felt itself also
caught by the rush of enthusiasm and resolution. We looked at each
other with shining eyes of approval. I, too, I heard myself cry, "At
last!" All our patriotism rose to the surface.
Our quarter grew fevered. We made speeches, we proclaimed the moral
verities--or explained them. The echoes of vast or petty news went by
in us. In the streets, the garrison officers walked, grown taller,
disclosed. It was announced that Major de Trancheaux had rejoined, in
spite of his years, and that the German armies had attacked us in three
places at once. We cursed the Kaiser and rejoiced in his imminent
chastisement. In the middle of it all France appeared personified, and
we reflected on her great life, now suddenly and nakedly exposed.
"It was easy to foresee this war, eh?" said Crillon.
Monsieur Joseph Bonéas summarized the world-drama. We were all pacific
to the point of stupidity--little saints, in fact. No one in France
spoke any longer of revenge, nobody wished it, nobody thought of as
much as getting ready for war. We had all of us in our hearts only
dreams of universal happiness and progress, the while Germany secretly
prepared everything for hurling herself on us. "But," he added, he
also carried away, "she'll get it in the neck, and that's all about
The desire for glory was making its way, and one cloudily imagines
In these days, only the mornings and evenings returned as usual,
everything else was upside down, and seemed temporary. The workers
moved and talked in a desert of idleness, and one saw invisible changes
in the scenery of our valley and the cavity of our sky.
We saw the Cuirassiers of the garrison go away in the evening. The
massive platoons of young-faced horsemen, whose solemn obstruction
heavily hammered the stones of the street, were separated by horses
loaded with bales of forage, by regimental wagons and baggage-carts,
which rattled unendingly. We formed a hedgerow along the twilight
causeways and watched them all disappear. Suddenly we cheered them.
The thrill that went through horses and men straightened them up and
they went away bigger--as if they were coming back!
"It's magnificent, how warlike we are in France!" said fevered Marie,
squeezing my arm with all her might.
The departures, of individuals or groups, multiplied. A sort of
methodical and inevitable tree-blazing--conducted sometimes by the
police--ransacked the population and thinned it from day to day around
Increasing hurly-burly was everywhere--all the complicated measures so
prudently foreseen and so interdependent; the new posters on top of the
old ones, the requisitioning of animals and places, the committees and
the allowances, the booming and momentous gales of motor-cars filled
with officers and aristocratic nurses--so many lives turned inside out
and habits cut in two. But hope bedazzled all anxieties and stopped up
the gaps for the moment. And we admired the beauty of military
orderliness and France's preparation.
Sometimes, at windows or street-corners, there were apparitions--people
covered with new uniforms. We had known them in vain, and did not know
them at first. Count d'Orchamp, lieutenant in the Active Reserves, and
Dr. Bardoux, town-major, displaying the cross of the Legion of Honor,
found themselves surrounded by respectful astonishment. Adjutant
Marcassin rose suddenly to the eyes as though he had come out of the
earth; Marcassin, brand-new, rigid, in blue and red, with his gold
stripe. One saw him afar, fascinating the groups of urchins who a week
ago threw stones at him.
"The old lot--the little ones, and the middling ones and the big
ones--all getting new clothes!" says a triumphant woman of the people.
Another said it was the coming of a new reign.
* * * * * *
From the Friday onwards I was engrossed by my own departure. It was
that day that we went to buy boots. We admired the beautiful
arrangement of the Cinema Hall as a Red Cross hospital.
"They've thought of everything!" said Marie, examining the collection
of beds, furniture, and costly chests, rich and perfected material, all
arranged with delighted and very French animation by a team of
attendants who were under the orders of young Varennes, a pretty
hospital sergeant, and Monsieur Lucien Gozlan, superintendent officer.
A center of life had created itself around the hospital. An open air
buffet had been set up in a twinkling. Apolline came there--since the
confusion of the mobilization all days were Sundays for her--to provide
herself with nips. We saw her hobbling along broadwise, hugging her
half-pint measure in her short turtle-like arms, the carrot slices of
her cheek-bones reddening as she already staggered with hope.
On our way back, as we passed in front of Fontan's café, we caught a
glimpse of Fontan himself, assiduous, and his face lubricated with a
smile. Around him they were singing the Marseillaise in the smoke. He
had increased his staff, and he himself was making himself two, serving
and serving. His business was growing by the fatality of things.
When we got back to our street, it was deserted, as of yore. The
faraway flutterings of the Marseillaise were dying. We heard
Brisbille, drunk, hammering with all his might on his anvil. The same
old shadows and the same lights were taking their places in the houses.
It seemed that ordinary life was coming back as it had been into our
corner after six days of supernatural disturbance, and that the past
was already stronger than the present.
Before mounting our steps we saw, crouching in front of his shop door
by the light of a lamp that was hooded by whirling mosquitoes, the mass
of Crillon, who was striving to attach to a cudgel a flap for the
crushing of flies. Bent upon his work, his gaping mouth let hang the
half of a globular and shining tongue. Seeing us with our parcels, he
threw down his tackle, roared a sigh, and said, "That wood! It's
touchwood, yes. A butter-wire's the only thing for cutting that!"
He stood up, discouraged; then changing his idea, and lighted from
below by his lamp so that he flamed in the evening, he extended his
tawny-edged arm and struck me on the shoulder. "We said war, war, all
along. Very well, we've got war, haven't we?"
In our room I said to Marie, "Only three days left."
Marie came and went and talked continually round me, all the time
sewing zinc buttons onto the new pouch, stiff with its dressing. She
seemed to be making an effort to divert me. She had on a blue blouse,
well-worn and soft, half open at the neck. Her place was a great one
in that gray room.
She asked me if I should be a long time away, and then, as whenever she
put that question she went on, "Of course, you don't a bit know." She
regretted that I was only a private like everybody. She hoped it would
be over long before the winter.
I did not speak. I saw that she was looking at me secretly, and she
surrounded me pell-mell with the news she had picked up. "D'you know,
the curate has gone as a private, no more nor less, like all the
clergy. And Monsieur the Marquis, who's a year past the age already,
has written to the Minister of War to put himself at his disposition,
and the Minister has sent a courier to thank him." She finished
wrapping up and tying some toilet items and also some provisions, as if
for a journey. "All your bits of things are there. You'll be
absolutely short of nothing, you see."
Then she sat down and sighed. "Ah," she said, "war, after all, it's
more terrible than one imagines."
She seemed to be having tragic presentiments. Her face was paler than
usual; the normal lassitude of her features was full of gentleness; her
eyelids were rosy as roses. Then she smiled weakly and said, "There
are some young men of eighteen who've enlisted, but only for the
duration of the war. They've done right; that'll be useful to them all
ways later in life."
* * * * * *
On Monday we hung about the house till four o'clock, when I left it to
go to the Town Hall, and then to the station.
At the Town Hall a group of men, like myself, were stamping about.
They were loaded with parcels in string; new boots hung from their
shoulders. I went up to mix with my new companions. Tudor was topped
by an artilleryman's cap. Monsieur Mielvaque was bustling about,
embarrassed--exactly as at the factory--by the papers he held in his
hand; and he had exchanged his eyeglasses for spectacles, which stood
for the beginning of his uniform. Every man talked about himself, and
gave details concerning his regiment, his depot, and some personal
"I'm staying," says the adjutant master-at-arms, who rises impeccably
in his active service uniform, amid the bustle and the neutral-tinted
groups; "I'm not going. I'm the owner of my rank, and they haven't got
the right to send me to join the army."
We waited long, and some hours went by. A rumor went round that we
should not go till the next day. But suddenly there was silence, a
stiffening up, and a military salute all round. The door had just
opened to admit Major de Trancheaux.
The women drew aside. A civilian who was on the lookout for him went
up, hat in hand, and spoke to him in undertones.
"But, my friend," cried the Major, quitting the importunate with a
quite military abruptness, "it's not worth while. In two months the
war will be over!"
He came up to us. He was wearing a white band on his cap.
"He's in command at the station," they say.
He gave us a patriotic address, brief and spirited. He spoke of the
great revenge so long awaited by French hearts, assured us that we
should all be proud, later, to have lived in those hours, thrilled us
all, and added, "Come, say good-by to your folks. No more women now.
And let's be off, for I'm going with you as far as the station."
A last confused scrimmage--with moist sounds of kisses and litanies of
advice--closed up in the great public hall.
When I had embraced Marie I joined these who were falling in near the
road. We went off in files of four. All the causeways were garnished
with people, because of us; and at that moment I felt a lofty emotion
and a real thrill of glory.
At the corner of a street I saw Crillon and Marie, who had run on ahead
to take their stand on our route. They waved to me.
"Now, keep your peckers up, boys! You're not dead yet, eh!" Crillon
called to us.
Marie was looking at me and could not speak.
"In step! One-two!" cried Adjutant Marcassin, striding along the
We crossed our quarter as the day declined over it. The countryman who
was walking beside me shook his head and in the dusky immensity among
the world of things we were leaving, with big regular steps, fused into
one single step, he scattered wondering words. "Frenzy, it is," he
murmured. "_I_ haven't had time to understand it yet. And yet, you
know, there are some that say, I understand; well, I'm telling you,
that's not possible."
The station--but we do not stop. They have opened before us the long
yellow barrier which is never opened. They make us cross the labyrinth
of hazy rails, and crowd us along a dark, covered platform between iron
And there, suddenly, we see that we are alone.
* * * * * *
The town--and life--are yonder, beyond that dismal plain of rails,
paths, low buildings and mists which surrounds us to the end of sight.
A chilliness is edging in along with twilight, and falling on our
perspiration and our enthusiasm. We fidget and wait. It goes gray,
and then black. The night comes to imprison us in its infinite
narrowness. We shiver and can see nothing more. With difficulty I can
make out, along our trampled platform, a dark flock, the buzz of
voices, the smell of tobacco. Here and there a match flame or the red
point of a cigarette makes some face phosphorescent. And we wait,
unoccupied, and weary of waiting, until we sit down, close-pressed
against each other, in the dark and the desert.
Some hours later Adjutant Marcassin comes forward, a lantern in his
hand, and in a strident voice calls the roll. Then he goes away, and
we begin again to wait.
At ten o'clock, after several false alarms, the right train is
announced. It comes up, distending as it comes, black and red. It is
already crowded, and it screams. It stops, and turns the platform into
a street. We climb up and put ourselves away--not without glimpses, by
the light of lanterns moving here and there, of some chalk sketches on
the carriages--heads of pigs in spiked helmets, and the inscription,
"To Berlin!"--the only things which slightly indicate where we are
The train sets off. We who have just got in crowd to the windows and
try to look outside, towards the level crossing where, perhaps, the
people in whom we live are still watching for us; but the eye can no
longer pick up anything but a vague stirring, shaded with crayon and
jumbled with nature. We are blind and we fall back each to his place.
When we are enveloped in the iron-hammered rumble of advance, we fix up
our luggage, arrange ourselves for the night, smoke, drink and talk.
Badly lighted and opaque with fumes, the compartment might be a corner
of a tavern that has been caught up and swept away into the unknown.
Some conversation mixes its rumble with that of the train. My
neighbors talk about crops and sunshine and rain. Others, scoffers and
Parisians, speak of popular people and principally of music-hall
singers. Others sleep, lying somehow or other on the wood. Their open
mouths make murmur, and the oscillation jerks them without tearing them
from their torpor. I go over in my thoughts the details of the last
day, and even my memories of times gone by when there was nothing going
* * * * * *
We traveled all night. At long intervals some one would let a window
drop at a station; a damp and cavernous breath would penetrate the
overdone atmosphere of the carriage. We saw darkness and some porter's
lantern dancing in the abyss of night.
Several times we made very long halts--to let the trains of regular
troops go by. In one station where our train stood for hours, we saw
several of them go roaring by in succession. Their speed blurred the
partitions between the windows and the huge vertebrae of the coaches,
seeming to blend together the soldiers huddled there; and the glance
which plunged into the train's interior descried, in its feeble and
whirling illumination, a long, continuous and tremulous chain, clad in
blue and red. Several times on the journey we got glimpses of these
interminable lengths of humanity, hurled by machinery from everywhere
to the frontiers, and almost towing each other.
At daybreak there was a stop, and they said to us, "You're there."
We got out, yawning, our teeth chattering, and grimy with night, on to
a platform black-smudged by drizzling rain, in the middle of a sheet of
mist which was torn by blasts of distant whistling. Disinterred from
the carriages, our shadows heaped themselves there and waited, like
bales of goods in the dawn's winter.
Adjutant Marcassin, who had gone in quest of instructions, returned at
last. "It's that way."
He formed us in fours. "Forward! Straighten up! Keep step! Look as
if you had something about you."
The rhythm of the step pulled at our feet and dovetailed us together.
The adjutant marched apart along the little column. Questioned by one
of us who knew him intimately, he made no reply. From time to time he
threw a quick glance, like the flick of a whip, to make sure that we
were in step.
I thought I was going again to the old barracks, where I did my term of
service, but I had a sadder disappointment than was reasonable. Across
some land where building was going on, deeply trenched, beplastered and
soiled with white, we arrived at a new barracks, sinisterly white in a
velvet pall of fog. In front of the freshly painted gate there was
already a crowd of men like us, clothed in subdued civilian hues in the
coppered dust of the first rays of day.
They made us sit on forms round the guard room. We waited there all
the day. As the scorching sun went round it forced us to change our
places several times. We ate with our knees for tables, and as I undid
the little parcels that Marie had made, it seemed to me that I was
touching her hands. When the evening had fallen, a passing officer
noticed us, made inquiries, and we were mustered. We plunged into the
night of the building. Our feet stumbled and climbed helter-skelter,
between pitched walls up the steps of a damp staircase, which smelt of
stale tobacco and gas-tar, like all barracks. They led us into a dark
corridor, pierced by little pale blue windows, where draughts came and
went violently, a corridor spotted at each end by naked gas-jets, their
flames buffeted and snarling.
A lighted doorway was stoppered by a throng--the store-room. I ended
by getting in in my turn, thanks to the pressure of the compact file
which followed me, and pushed me like a spiral spring. Some barrack
sergeants were exerting themselves authoritatively among piles of
new-smelling clothes, of caps and glittering equipment. Geared into
the jerky hustle from which we detached ourselves one by one, I made
the tour of the place, and came out of it wearing red trousers and
carrying my civilian clothes, and a blue coat on my arm; and not daring
to put on either my hat or the military cap that I held in my hand.
We have dressed ourselves all alike. I look at the others since I
cannot look at myself, and thus I see myself dimly. Gloomily we eat
stew, by the miserable illumination of a candle, in the dull desert of
the mess room. Then, our mess-tins cleaned, we go down to the great
yard, gray and stagnant. Just as we pour out into it, there is the
clash of a closing gate and a tightened chain. An armed sentry goes up
and down before the gate. It is forbidden to go out under pain of
court-martial. To westward, beyond some indistinct land, we see the
buried station, reddening and smoking like a factory, and sending out
rusty flashes. On the other side is the trench of a street; and in its
extended hollow are the bright points of some windows and the radiance
of a shop. With my face between the bars of the gate, I look on this
reflection of the other life; then I go back to the black staircase,
the corridor and the dormitory, I who am something and yet am nothing,
like a drop of water in a river.
* * * * * *
We stretch ourselves on straw, in thin blankets. I go to sleep with my
head on the bundle of my civilian clothes. In the morning I find
myself again and throw off a long dream--all at once impenetrable.
My neighbor, sitting on his straw with his hair over his nose, is
occupied in scratching his feet. He yawns into tears, and says to me,
"I've dreamt about myself."
* * * * * *
Several days followed each other. We remained imprisoned in the
barracks, in ignorance. The only events were those related by the
newspapers which were handed to us through the gates in the morning.
The war got on very slowly; it immobilized itself, and we--we did
nothing, between the roll-calls, the parades, and from time to time
some cleaning fatigues. We could not go into the town, and we waited
for the evening--standing, sitting, strolling in the mess room (which
never seemed empty, so strong was the smell that filled it), wandering
about the dark stairs and the corridors dark as iron, or in the yard,
or as far as the gates, or the kitchens, which last were at the rear of
the buildings, and smelt in turns throughout the day of coffee-grounds
We said that perhaps, undoubtedly indeed, we should stay there till the
end of the war. We moped. When we went to bed we were tired with
standing still, or with walking too slowly. We should have liked to go
to the front.
Marcassin, housed in the company office, was never far away, and kept
an eye on us in silence. One day I was sharply rebuked by him for
having turned the water on in the lavatory at a time other than
placarded. Detected, I had to stand before him at attention. He asked
me in coarse language if I knew how to read, talked of punishment, and
added, "Don't do it again!" This tirade, perhaps justified on the
whole, but tactlessly uttered by the quondam Pétrolus, humiliated me
deeply and left me gloomy all the day. Some other incidents showed me
that I no longer belonged to myself.
* * * * * *
One day, after morning parade, when the company was breaking off, a
Parisian of our section went up to Marcassin and asked him, "Adjutant,
we should like to know if we are going away."
The officer took it in bad part. "To know? Always wanting to know!"
he cried; "it's a disease in France, this wanting to know. Get it well
into your heads that you _won't_ know! We shall do the knowing for
you! Words are done with. There's something else beginning, and
that's discipline and silence."
The zeal we had felt for going to the front cooled off in a few days.
One or two well-defined cases of shirking were infectious, and you
heard this refrain again and again: "As long as the others are
dodging, I should be an ass not to do it, too."
But there was quite a multitude who never said anything.
At last a reinforcement draft was posted; old and young
promiscuously--a list worked out in the office amidst a seesaw of
intrigue. Protests were raised, and fell back again into the
tranquillity of the depot.
I abode there forty-five days. Towards the middle of September, we
were allowed to go out after the evening meal and Sundays as well. We
used to go in the evening to the Town Hall to read the despatches
posted there; they were as uniform and monotonous as rain. Then a
friend and I would go to the café, keeping step, our arms similarly
swinging, exchanging some words, idle, and vaguely divided into two
men. Or we went into it in a body, which isolated me. The saloon of
the café enclosed the same odors as Fontan's; and while I stayed there,
sunk in the soft seat, my boots grating on the tiled floor, my eye on
the white marble, it was like a strip of a long dream of the past, a
scanty memory that clothed me. There I used to write to Marie, and
there I read again the letters I received from her, in which she said,
"Nothing has changed since you were away."
One Sunday, when I was beached on a seat in the square and weeping with
yawns under the empty sky, I saw a young woman go by. By reason of
some resemblance in outline, I thought of a woman who had loved me. I
recalled the period when life was life, and that beautiful caressing
body of once-on-a-time. It seemed to me that I held her in my arms, so
close that I felt her breath, like velvet, on my face.
We got a glimpse of the captain at one review. Once there was talk of
a new draft for the front, but it was a false rumor. Then we said,
"There'll never be any war for us," and that was a relief.
My name flashed to my eyes in a departure list posted on the wall. My
name was read out at morning parade, and it seemed to me that it was
the only one they read. I had no time to get ready. In the evening of
the next day our detachment passed out of the barracks by the little
AT THE WORLD'S END
"We're going to Alsace," said the well-informed. "To the Somme," said
the better-informed, louder.
We traveled thirty-six hours on the floor of a cattle truck, wedged and
paralyzed in the vice of knapsacks, pouches, weapons and moist bodies.
At long intervals the train would begin to move on again. It has left
an impression with me that it was chiefly motionless.
We got out, one afternoon, under a sky crowded with masses of darkness,
in a station recently bombarded and smashed, and its roof left like a
fish-bone. It overlooked a half-destroyed town, where, amid a foul
whiteness of ruin, a few families were making shift to live in the
"'Pears we're in the Aisne country," they said.
A downpour was in progress. Shivering, we busied ourselves with
unloading and distributing bread, our hands numbed and wet, and then
ate it hurriedly while we stood in the road, which gleamed with heavy
parallel brush-strokes of gray paint as far as the eye could see. Each
looked after himself, with hardly a thought for the next man. On each
side of the road were deserts without limits, flat and flabby, with
trees like posts, and rusty fields patched with green mud.
"Shoulder packs, and forward!" Adjutant Marcassin ordered.
Where were we going? No one knew. We crossed the rest of the village.
The Germans had occupied it during the August retreat. It was
destroyed, and the destruction was beginning to live, to cover itself
with fresh wreckage and dung, to smoke and consume itself. The rain
had ceased in melancholy. Up aloft in the clearings of the sky,
clusters of shrapnel stippled the air round aeroplanes, and the
detonations reached us, far and fine. Along the sodden road we met Red
Cross motor ambulances, rushing on rails of mud, but we could not see
inside them. In the first stages we were interested in everything, and
asked questions, like foreigners. A man who had been wounded and was
rejoining the regiment with us answered us from time to time, and
invariably added, "That's nothing; you'll see in a bit." Then the
march made men retire into themselves.
My knapsack, so ingeniously compact; my cartridge-bags so ferociously
full; my round pouches with their keen-edged straps, all jostled and
then wounded my back at each step. The pain quickly became acute,
unbearable. I was suffocated and blinded by a mask of sweat, in spite
of the lashing moisture, and I soon felt that I should not arrive at
the end of the fifty minutes' march. But I did all the same, because I
had no reason for stopping at any one second sooner than another, and
because I could thus always _do one step more_. I knew later that this
is nearly always the mechanical reason which accounts for soldiers
completing superhuman physical efforts to the very end.
The cold blast benumbed us, while we dragged ourselves through the
softened plains which evening was darkening. At one halt I saw one of
those men who used to agitate at the depot to be sent to the front. He
had sunk down at the foot of the stacked rifles; exertion had made him
almost unrecognizable, and he told me that he had had enough of war!
And little Mélusson, whom I once used to see at Viviers, lifted to me
his yellowish face, sweat-soaked, where the folds of the eyelids seemed
drawn with red crayon, and informed me that he should report sick the
After four marches of despairing length under a lightless sky over a
colorless earth, we stood for two hours, hot and damp, at the chilly
top of a hill, where a village was beginning. An epidemic of gloom
overspread us. Why were we stopped in that way? No one knew anything.
In the evening we engulfed ourselves in the village. But they halted
us in a street. The sky had heavily darkened. The fronts of the
houses had taken on a greenish hue and reflected and rooted themselves
in the running water of the street. The market-place curved around in
front of us--a black space with shining tracks, like an old mirror to
which the silvering only clings in strips.
At last, night fully come, they bade us march. They made us go forward
and then draw back, with loud words of command, in the tunnels of
streets, in alleys and yards. By lantern light they divided us into
squads. I was assigned to the eleventh, quartered in a village whose
still standing parts appeared quite new. Adjutant Marcassin became my
section chief. I was secretly glad of this; for in the gloomy
confusion we stuck closely to those we knew, as dogs do.
The new comrades of the squad--they lodged in the stable, which was
open as a cage--explained to me that we were a long way from the front,
over six miles; that we should have four days' rest and then go on
yonder to occupy the trenches at the glass works. They said it would
be like that, in shifts of four days, to the end of the war, and that,
moreover, one had not to worry.
These words comforted the newcomers, adrift here and there in the
straw. Their weariness was alleviated. They set about writing and
card-playing. That evening I dated my letter to Marie "at the Front,"
with a flourish of pride. I understood that glory consists in doing
what others have done, in being able to say, "I, too."
* * * * * *
Three days went by in this "rest camp." I got used to an existence
crowded with exercises in which we were living gear-wheels; crowded
also with fatigues; already I was forgetting my previous existence.
On the Friday at three o'clock we were paraded in marching order in the
school yard. Great stones, detached from walls and arches, lay about
the forsaken grass like tombs. Hustled by the wind, we were reviewed
by the captain, who fumbled in our cartridge-pouches and knapsacks with
the intention of giving imprisonment to those who had not the right
quantity of cartridges and iron rations. In the evening we set off,
laughing and singing, along the great curves of the road. At night we
arrived swaying with fatigue and savagely silent, at a slippery and
interminable ascent which stood out against stormy rain-clouds as heavy
as dung-hills. Many dark masses stumbled and fell with a crash of
accoutrements on that huge sloping sewer. As they swarmed up the chaos
of oblique darkness which pushed them back, the men gave signs of
exhaustion and anger. Cries of "Forward! Forward!" surrounded us on
all sides, harsh cries like barks, and I heard, near me, Adjutant
Marcassin's voice, growling, "What about it, then? It's for France's
sake!" Arrived at the top of the hill, we went down the other slope.
The order came to put pipes out and advance in silence. A world of
noises was coming to life in the distance.
A gateway made its sudden appearance in the night. We scattered among
flat buildings, whose walls here and there showed black holes, like
ovens, while the approaches were obstructed with plaster rubbish and
nail-studded beams. In places the recent collapse of stones, cement
and plaster had laid on the bricks a new and vivid whiteness that was
visible in the dark.
"It's the glass works," said a soldier to me.
We halted a moment in a passage whose walls and windows were broken,
where we could not make a step or sit down without breaking glass. We
left the works by sticky footpaths, full of rubbish at first, and then
of mud. Across marshy flats, chilly and sinister, obscurely lighted by
the night, we came to the edge of an immense and pallid crater. The
depths of this abyss were populated with glimmers and murmurs; and all
around a soaked and ink-black expanse of country glistened to infinity.
"It's the quarry," they informed me.
Our endless and bottomless march continued. Sliding and slipping we
descended, burying ourselves in these profundities and gropingly
encountering the hurly-burly of a convoy of carts and the advance guard
of the regiment we were relieving. We passed heaped-up hutments at the
foot of the circular chalky cliff that we could see dimly drawn among
the black circles of space. The sound of shots drew near and
multiplied on all sides; the vibration of artillery fire outspread
under our feet and over our heads.
I found myself suddenly in front of a narrow and muddy ravine into
which the others were plunging one by one.
"It's the trench," whispered the man who was following me; "you can see
its beginning, but you never see its blinking end. Anyway, on you go!"
We followed the trench along for three hours. For three hours we
continued to immerse ourselves in distance and solitude, to immure
ourselves in night, scraping its walls with our loads, and sometimes
violently pulled up, where the defile shrunk into strangulation by the
sudden wedging of our pouches. It seemed as if the earth tried
continually to clasp and choke us, that sometimes it roughly struck us.
Above the unknown plains in which we were hiding, space was
shot-riddled. A few star-shells were softly whitening some sections of
the night, revealing the excavations' wet entrails and conjuring up a
file of heavy shadows, borne down by lofty burdens, tramping in a black
and black-bunged impasse, and jolting against the eddies. When great
guns were discharged all the vault of heaven was lighted and lifted and
then fell darkly back.
"Look out! The open crossing!"
A wall of earth rose in tiers before us. There was no outlet. The
trench came to a sudden end--to be resumed farther on, it seemed.
"Why?" I asked, mechanically.
They explained to me: "It's like that." And they added, "You stoop
down and get a move on."
The men climbed the soft steps with bent heads, made their rush one by
one and ran hard into the belt whose only remaining defense was the
dark. The thunder of shrapnel that shattered and dazzled the air here
and there showed me too frightfully how fragile we all were. In spite
of the fatigue clinging to my limbs, I sprang forward in my turn with
all my strength, fiercely pursuing the signs of an overloaded and
rattling body which ran in front; and I found myself again in a trench,
breathless. In my passage I had glimpses of a somber field,
bullet-smacked and hole pierced, with silent blots outspread or
doubled, and a litter of crosses and posts, as black and fantastic as
tall torches extinguished, all under a firmament where day and night
"I believe I saw some corpses," I said to him who marched in front of
me; and there was a break in my voice.
"_You've_ just left your village," he replied; "you bet there's some
stiffs about here!"
I laughed also, in the delight of having got past. We began again to
march one behind another, swaying about, hustled by the narrowness of
this furrow they had scooped to the ancient depth of a grave, panting
under the load, dragged towards the earth by the earth and pushed
forward by will-power, under a sky shrilling with the dizzy flight of
bullets, tiger-striped with red, and in some seconds saturated with
light. At forks in the way we turned sometimes right and sometimes
left, all touching each other, the whole huge body of the company
fleeing blindly towards its bourne.
For the last time they halted us in the middle of the night. I was so
weary that I propped my knees against the wet wall and remained
kneeling for some blissful minutes.
My sentry turn began immediately, and the lieutenant posted me at a
loophole. He made me put my face to the hole and explained to me that
there was a wooded slope, right in front of us, of which the bottom was
occupied by the enemy; and to the right of us, three hundred yards
away, the Chauny road--"They're there." I had to watch the black
hollow of the little wood, and at every star-shell the creamy expanse
which divided our refuge from the distant hazy railing of the trees
along the road. He told me what to do in case of alarm and left me
Alone, I shivered. Fatigue had emptied my head and was weighing on my
heart. Going close to the loophole, I opened my eyes wide through the
enemy night, the fathomless, thinking night.
I thought I could see some of the dim shadows of the plain moving, and
some in the chasm of the wood, and everywhere! Affected by terror and
a sense of my huge responsibility, I could hardly stifle a cry of
anguish. But they did not move. The fearful preparations of the
shades vanished before my eyes and the stillness of lifeless things
showed itself to me.
I had neither knapsack nor pouches, and I wrapped myself in my blanket.
I remained at ease, encircled to the horizon by the machinery of war,
surmounted by claps of living thunder. Very gently, my vigil relieved
and calmed me. I remembered nothing more about myself. I applied
myself to watching. I saw nothing, I knew nothing.
After two hours, the sound of the natural and complaisant steps of the
sentry who came to relieve me brought me completely back to myself. I
detached myself from the spot where I had seemed riveted and went to
sleep in the "grotto."
The dug-out was very roomy, but so low that in one place one had to
crawl on hands and knees to slip under its rough and mighty roof. It
was full of heavy damp, and hot with men. Extended in my place on
straw-dust, my neck propped by my knapsack, I closed my eyes in
comfort. When I opened them, I saw a group of soldiers seated in a
circle and eating from the same dish, their heads blotted out in the
darkness of the low roof. Their feet, grouped round the dish, were
shapeless, black, and trickling, like stone disinterred. They ate in
common, without table things, no man using more than his hands.
The man next me was equipping himself to go on sentry duty. He was in
no hurry. He filled his pipe, drew from his pocket a tinder-lighter as
long as a tapeworm, and said to me, "You're not going on again till six
o'clock. Ah, you're very lucky!"
Diligently he mingled his heavy tobacco-clouds with the vapors from all
those bodies which lay around us and rattled in their throats.
Kneeling at my feet to arrange his things, he gave me some advice, "No
need to get a hump, mind. Nothing ever happens here. Getting here's
by far the worst. On that job you get it hot, specially when you've
the bad luck to be sleepy, or it's not raining, but after that you're a
workman, and you forget about it. The most worst, it's the open
crossing. But nobody I know's ever stopped one there. It was other
blokes. It's been like this for two months, old man, and we'll be able
to say we've been through the war without a chilblain, we shall."
At dawn I resumed my lookout at the loophole. Quite near, on the slope
of the little wood, the bushes and the bare branches are broidered with
drops of water. In front, under the fatal space where the eternal
passage of projectiles is as undistinguishable as light in daytime, the
field resembles a field, the road resembles a road. Ultimately one
makes out some corpses, but what a strangely little thing is a corpse
in a field--a tuft of colorless flowers which the shortest blades of
grass disguise! At one moment there was a ray of sunshine, and it
resembled the past.
Thus went the days by, the weeks and the months; four days in the front
line, the harassing journey to and from it, the monotonous sentry-go,
the spy-hole on the plain, the mesmerism of the empty outlook and of
the deserts of waiting; and after that, four days of rest-camp full of
marches and parades and great cleansings of implements and of streets,
with regulations of the strictest, anticipating all the different
occasions for punishment, a thousand fatigues, each with as many harsh
knocks, the litany of optimist phrases, abstruse and utopian, in the
orders of the day, and a captain who chiefly concerned himself with the
two hundred cartridges and the reserve rations. The regiment had no
losses, or almost none; a few wounds during reliefs, and sometimes one
or two deaths which were announced like accidents. We only underwent
great weariness, which goes away as fast as it comes. The soldiers
used to say that on the whole they lived in peace.
Marie would write to me, "The Piots have been saying nice things about
you," or "The Trompsons' son is a second lieutenant," or "If you knew
all the contrivances people have been up to, to hide their gold since
it's been asked for so loudly! If you knew what ugly tales there are!"
or "Everything is just the same."
* * * * * *
Once, when we were coming back from the lines and were entering our
usual village, we did not stop there; to the great distress of the men
who were worn out and yielding to the force of the knapsack. We
continued along the road through the evening with lowered heads; and
one hour later we dropped off around dark buildings--mournful tokens of
an unknown place--and they put us away among shadows which had new
shapes. From that time onwards, they changed the village at every
relief, and we never knew what it was until we were there. I was
lodged in barns, into which one wriggled by a ladder; in spongy and
steamy stables; in cellars where undisturbed draughts stirred up the
moldy smells that hung there; in frail and broken hangars which seemed
to brew bad weather; in sick and wounded huts; in villages remade
athwart their phantoms; in trenches and in caves--a world upside down.
We received the wind and the rain in our sleep. Sometimes we were too
brutally rescued from the pressure of the cold by braziers, whose
poisonous heat split one's head. And we forgot it all at each change
of scene. I had begun to note the names of places we were going to,
but I lost myself in the black swarm of words when I tried to recall
them. And the diversity and the crowds of the men around me were such
that I managed only with difficulty to attach fleeting names to their
My companions did not look unfavorably on me, but I was no more than
another to them. In intervals among the occupations of the rest-camp,
I wandered spiritless, blotted out by the common soldiers' miserable
uniform, familiarly addressed by any one and every one, and stopping no
glance from a woman, by reason of the non-coms.
I should never be an officer, like the Trompsons' son. It was not so
easy in my sector as in his. For that, it would be necessary for
things to happen which never would happen. But I should have liked to
be taken into the office. Others were there who were not so clearly
indicated as I for that work. I regarded myself as a victim of
* * * * * *
One morning I found myself face to face with Termite, Brisbille's crony
and accomplice, and he arrived in our company by voluntary enlistment!
He was as skimpy and warped as ever, his body seeming to grimace
through his uniform. His new greatcoat looked worn out and his boots
on the wrong feet. He had the same ugly, blinking face and
black-furred cheeks and rasping voice. I welcomed him warmly, for by
his enlistment he was redeeming his past life. He took advantage of
the occasion to address me with intimacy. I talked with him about
Viviers and even let him share the news that Marie had just written to
me--that Monsieur Joseph Bonéas was taking an examination in order to
become an officer in the police.
But the poacher had not completely sloughed his old self. He looked at
me sideways and shook in the air his grimy wrist and the brass identity
disk that hung from it--a disk as big as a forest ranger's, perhaps a
trophy of bygone days. Hatred of the rich and titled appeared again
upon his hairy, sly face. "Those blasted nationalists," he growled;
"they spend their time shoving the idea of revenge into folks' heads,
and patching up hatred with their Leagues of Patriots and their
military tattoos and their twaddle and their newspapers, and when their
war does come they say '_Go_ and fight.'"
"There are some of them who have died in the first line. Those have
done more than their duty."
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