Part 3 out of 6
With the revolutionary's unfairness, the little man would not admit it.
"No--they have only done their duty,--no more."
I was going to urge Monsieur Joseph's weak constitution but in presence
of that puny man with his thin, furry face, who might have stayed at
home, I forebore. But I decided to avoid, in his company, those
subjects in which I felt he was full of sour hostility and always ready
Continually we saw Marcassin's eye fixed on us, though aloof. His new
bestriped personality had completely covered up the comical picture of
Pétrolus. He even seemed to have become suddenly more educated, and
made no mistakes when he spoke. He multiplied himself, was
attentiveness itself and found ways to expose himself to danger. When
there were night patrols in the great naked cemeteries bounded by the
graves of the living, he was always in them.
But he scowled. We were short of the sacred fire, in his opinion, and
that distressed him. To grumbles against the fatigues which shatter,
the waiting which exhausts, the disillusion which destroys, against
misery and the blows of cold and rain, he answered violently, "Can't
you see it's for France? Why, hell and damnation! As long as it's for
One morning when we were returning from the trenches, ghastly in a
ghastly dawn, during the last minutes of a stage, a panting soldier let
the words escape him, "I'm fed up, I am!"
The adjutant sprang towards him, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself, hog?
Don't you think that France is worth your dirty skin and all our
The other, strained and tortured in his joints, showed fight. "France,
you say? Well, that's the French," he growled.
And his pal, goaded also by weariness, raised his voice from the ranks.
"That's right! After all, it's the men that's there."
"Great God!" the adjutant roared in their faces, "France is France and
nothing else, and you don't count, nor you either!"
But the soldier, all the while hoisting up his knapsack with jerks of
his hips, and lowering his voice before the non-com's aggressive
excitement, clung to his notion, and murmured between his puffings,
"Men--they're humanity. That's not the truth perhaps?"
Marcassin began to hurry through the drizzle along the side of the
marching column, shouting and trembling with emotion, "To hell with
your humanity, and your truth, too; I don't give a damn for them. _I_
know your ideas--universal justice and 1789--to hell with them, too.
There's only one thing that matters in all the earth, and that's the
glory of France--to give the Boches a thrashing and get Alsace-Lorraine
back, and money, that's where they're taking you, and that's all about
it. Once that's done, all's over. It's simple enough, even for a
blockhead like you. If you don't understand it, it's because you can't
lift your pig's head to see an ideal, or because you're only a
Socialist and a confiscator!"
[Footnote 1: Outbreak of the French Revolution.--Tr.]
Very reluctantly, rumbling all over, and his eye threatening, he went
away from the now silent ranks. A moment later, as he passed near me,
I noticed that his hands still trembled and I was infinitely moved to
see tears in his eyes!
He comes and goes in pugnacious surveillance, in furies with difficulty
restrained, and masked by a contraction of the face. He invokes
Déroulède, and says that faith comes at will, like the rest. He lives
in perpetual bewilderment and distress that everybody does not think as
he does. He exerts real influence, for there are, in the multitudes,
whatever they may say, beautiful and profound instincts always near the
The captain, who was a well-balanced man, although severe and prodigal
of prison when he found the least gap in our loads, considered the
adjutant animated by an excellent spirit, but he himself was not so
fiery. I was getting a better opinion of him; he could judge men. He
had said that I was a good and conscientious soldier, that many like me
Our lieutenant, who was very young, seemed to be an amiable,
good-natured fellow. "He's a good little lad," said the grateful men;
"there's some that frighten you when you speak to them, and they solder
their jaws up. But _him_, he speaks to you even if you're stupid.
When you talk to him about you and your family, which isn't, all the
same, very interesting, well, he listens to you, old man."
* * * * * *
St. Martin's summer greatly warmed us as we tramped into a new village.
I remember that one of those days I took Margat with me and went with
him into a recently shelled house. (Margat was storming against the
local grocer, the only one of his kind, the inevitable and implacable
robber of his customers.) The framework of the house was laid bare, it
was full of light and plaster, and it trembled like a steamboat. We
climbed to the drawing-room of this house which had breathed forth all
its mystery and was worse than empty. The room still showed remains of
luxury and elegance--a disemboweled piano with clusters of protruding
strings; a cupboard, dislodged and rotting, as though disinterred; a
white-powdered floor, sown with golden stripes and rumpled books, and
with fragile débris which cried out when we trod on it. Across the
window, which was framed in broken glass, a curtain hung by one corner
and fluttered like a bat. Over the sundered fireplace, only a mirror
was intact and unsullied, upright in its frame.
Then, become suddenly and profoundly like each other, we were both
fascinated by the virginity of that long glass. Its perfect integrity
lent it something like a body. Each of us picked up a brick and we
broke it with all our might, not knowing why. We ran away down the
shaking spiral stairs whose steps were hidden under deep rubbish. At
the bottom we looked at each other, still excited and already ashamed
of the fit of barbarism which had so suddenly risen in us and urged our
"What about it? It's a natural thing to do--we're becoming men again,
that's all," said Margat.
Having nothing to do we sat down there, commanding a view of the dale.
The day had been fine.
Margat's looks strayed here and there. He frowned, and disparaged the
village because it was not like his own. What a comical idea to have
built it like that! He did not like the church, the singular shape of
it, the steeple in that position instead of where it should have been.
Orango and Rémus came and sat down by us in the ripening sun of
Far away we saw the explosion of a shell, like a white shrub. We
chuckled at the harmless shot in the hazy distance and Rémus made a
just observation. "As long as it's not dropped here, you might say as
one doesn't mind, eh, s'long as it's dropped somewhere else, eh?"
At that moment a cloud of dirty smoke took shape five hundred yards
away at the foot of the village, and a heavy detonation rolled up to
where we were.
"They're plugging the bottom of the village," Orango laconically
Margat, still ruminating his grievance, cried, "'Fraid it's not on the
grocers it's dropped, that crump, seeing he lives right at the other
end. More's the pity. He charges any old price he likes and then he
says to you as well, 'If you're not satisfied, my lad, you can go to
hell.' Ah, more's the pity!"
He sighed, and resumed. "Ah, grocers, they beat all, they do. You can
starve or you can bankrupt, that's their gospel; 'You don't matter to
me, _I've_ got to make money!'"
"What do you want to be pasting the grocers for," Orango asked, "as
long as they've always been like that? They're Messrs. Thief & Sons."
After a silence, Rémus coughed, to encourage his voice, and said, "I'm
Then Margat said to him artlessly, "Well, what about it, old chap? We
know well enough, don't we, that here on earth profit's the strongest
"Why, yes, to be sure, old man," Rémus replied.
* * * * * *
One day, while we were carrying our straw to our billets, one of my
lowly companions came up and questioned me as he walked. "I'd like you
to explain to me why there isn't any justice. I've been to the captain
to ask for leave that I'd a right to and I shows him a letter to say my
aunt's shortly deceased. 'That's all my eye and Betty Martin,' he
says. And I says to myself, that's the blinking limit, that is. Now,
then, tell me, you. When the war began, why didn't there begin full
justice for every one, seeing they could have done it and seeing no one
wouldn't have raised no objection just then. Why is it all just the
contrary? And don't believe it's only what's happened to me, but
there's big business men, they say, all of a sudden making a hundred
francs a day extra because of the murdering, and them young men an'
all, and a lot of toffed-up shirkers at the rear that's ten times
stronger than this pack of half-dead Territorials that they haven't
sent home even this morning yet, and they have beanos in the towns with
their Totties and their jewels and champagne, like what Jusserand tells
I replied that complete justice was impossible, that we had to look at
the great mass of things generally. And then, having said this, I
became embarrassed in face of the stubborn inquisitiveness, clumsily
strict, of this comrade who was seeking the light all by himself!
Following that incident, I often tried, during days of monotony, to
collect my ideas on war. I could not. I am sure of certain points,
points of which I have always been sure. Farther I cannot go. I rely
in the matter on those who guide us, who withhold the policy of the
State. But sometimes I regret that I no longer have a spiritual
director like Joseph Bonéas.
For the rest, the men around me--except when personal interest is in
question and except for a few chatterers who suddenly pour out theories
which contain bits taken bodily from the newspapers--the men around me
are indifferent to every problem too remote and too profound concerning
the succession of inevitable misfortunes which sweep us along. Beyond
immediate things, and especially personal matters, they are prudently
conscious of their ignorance and impotence.
One evening I was coming in to sleep in our stable bedroom. The men
lying along its length and breadth on the bundles of straw had been
talking together and were agreed. Some one had just wound it up--"From
the moment you start marching, that's enough."
But Termite, coiled up like a marmot on the common litter, was on the
watch. He raised his shock of hair, shook himself as though caught in
a snare, waved the brass disk on his wrist like a bell and said, "No,
that's not enough. You must think, but think with your own idea, not
Some amused faces were raised while he entered into observations that
they foresaw would be endless.
"Pay attention, you fellows, he's going to talk about militarism,"
announced a wag, called Pinson, whose lively wit I had already noticed.
"There's the question of militarism----" Termite went on.
We laughed to see the hairy mannikin floundering on the dim straw in
the middle of his big public-meeting words, and casting fantastic
shadows on the spider-web curtain of the skylight.
"Are you going to tell us," asked one of us, "that the Boches aren't
"Yes, indeed, and in course they are," Termite consented to admit.
"Ha! That bungs you in the optic!" Pinson hastened to record.
"For my part, old sonny," said a Territorial who was a good soldier,
"I'm not seeking as far as you, and I'm not as spiteful. I know that
they set about us, and that we only wanted to be quiet and friends with
everybody. Why, where I come from, for instance in the Creuse country,
I know that----"
"You know?" bawled Termite, angrily; "you know nothing about nothing!
You're only a poor little tame animal, like all the millions of pals.
They gather us together, but they separate us. They say what they like
to us, or they don't say it, and you believe it. They say to you,
'This is what you've got to believe in!' They----"
I found myself growing privately incensed against Termite, by the same
instinct which had once thrown me upon his accomplice Brisbille. I
interrupted him. "Who are they--your 'they'?"
"Kings," said Termite.
At that moment Marcassin's silhouette appeared in the gray of the alley
which ended among us. "Look out--there's Marc'! Shut your jaw," one
of the audience benevolently advised.
"I'm not afeared not to say what I think!" declared Termite, instantly
lowering his voice and worming his way through the straw that divided
the next stall from ours.
We laughed again. But Margat was serious. "Always," he said,
"there'll be the two sorts of people there's always been--the grousers
and the obeyers."
Some one asked, "What for did you chap 'list?"
"'Cos there was nothing to eat in the house," answered the Territorial,
as interpreter of the general opinion.
Having thus spoken, the old soldier yawned, went on all fours, arranged
the straw of his claim, and added, "We'll not worry, but just let him
be. 'Specially seeing we can't do otherwise."
It was time for slumber. The shed gaped open in front and at the
sides, but the air was not cold.
"We've done with the bad days," said Rémus; "shan't see them no more."
"At last!" said Margat.
We stretched ourselves out, elbow to elbow. The one in the dark corner
blew out his candle.
"May the war look slippy and get finished!" mumbled Orango.
"If only they'll let me transfer to the cyclists," Margat replied.
We said no more, each forming that same great wandering prayer and some
little prayer like Margat's. Gently we wrapped ourselves up on the
straw, one with the falling night, and closed our eyes.
* * * * * *
At the bottom of the village, in the long pink farmhouse, there was a
charming woman, who smiled at us with twinkling eyes. As the days
emerged from the rains and fogs, I looked at her with all my soul, for
she was bathed in the youth of the year. She had a little nose and big
eyes and slight fair down on her lips and neck, like traces of gold.
Her husband was mobilized and we paid attentions to her. She smiled at
the soldiers as she went by, and chattered willingly with the non-coms;
and the passage of officers brought her to a standstill of vague
respect. I used to think about her, and I forgot, through her, to
write to Marie.
There were many who inquired, speaking of the farmer's wife, "Any
chance?" But there were many who replied, "Nothing doing."
One morning that was bright above all others, my companions were busy
holding their sides around a tipsy comrade whom they were catechizing
and ragging, and sprinkling now and then with little doses of wine, to
entertain him, and benefit more by him. These innocent amusements,
like those which Termite provoked when he discoursed on militarism and
the universe, did not detain me, and I gained the street.
I went down the paved slope. In gardens and enclosures, the buds were
holding out a multitude of lilliputian green hands, all still closed,
and the apple-trees had white roses. Spring was hastening everywhere.
I came in sight of the pink house. She was alone in the road and she
took all the sunshine for herself. I hesitated, I went by--my steps
slackened heavily--I stopped, and returned towards the door. Almost in
spite of myself I went in.
At first--light! A square of sunshine glowed on the red tiled floor of
the kitchen. Casseroles and basins were shining brightly.
She was there! Standing by the sink she was making a streak of silver
flow into a gleaming pail, amid the luminous blush of the polished
tiles and the gold of the brass pans. The greenish light from the
window-glass was moistening her skin. She saw me and she smiled.
I knew that she always smiled at us. But we were alone! I felt a mad
longing arise. There was something in me that was stronger than I,
that ravished the picture of her. Every second she became more
beautiful. Her plump dress proffered her figure to my eyes, and her
skirt trembled over her polished sabots. I looked at her neck, at her
throat--that extraordinary beginning. A strong perfume that enveloped
her shoulders was like the truth of her body. Urged forward, I went
towards her, and I could not even speak.
She had lowered her head a little; her eyebrows had come nearer
together under the close cluster of her hair; uneasiness passed into
her eyes. She was used to the boyish mimicry of infatuated men. But
this woman was not for me! She dealt me the blow of an unfeeling
laugh, and disappearing, shut the door in my face.
I opened the door. I followed her into an outhouse. Stammering
something, I found touch again with her presence, I held out my hand.
She slipped away, she was escaping me forever--when a monstrous Terror
The walls and roof drew near in a hissing crash of thunder, a dreadful
hatch opened in the ceiling and all was filled with black fire. And
while I was hurled against the wall by a volcanic blast, with my eyes
scorched, my ears rent, and my brain hammered, while around me the
stones were pierced and crushed, I saw the woman uplifted in a
fantastic shroud of black and red, to fall back in a red and white
affray of clothes and linen; and something huge burst and naked, with
two legs, sprang at my face and forced into my mouth the taste of
I know that I cried out, hiccoughing. Assaulted by the horrible kiss
and by the vile clasp that bruised the hand I had offered to the
woman's beauty--a hand still outheld--sunk in whirling smoke and ashes
and the dreadful noise now majestically ebbing, I found my way out of
the place, between walls that reeled as I did. Bodily, the house
collapsed behind me. In my flight over the shifting ground I was
brushed by the mass of maddened falling stones and the cry of the
ruins, sinking in vast dust-clouds as in a tumult of beating wings.
A veritable squall of shells was falling in this corner of the village.
A little way off some soldiers were ejaculating in front of a little
house which had just been broken in two. They did not go close to it
because of the terrible whistling which was burying itself here and
there all around, and the splinters that riddled it at every blow.
Within the shelter of a wall we watched it appear under a vault of
smoke, in the vivid flashes of that unnatural tempest.
"Why, you're covered with blood!" a comrade said to me, disquieted.
Stupefied and still thunderstruck I looked at that house's bones and
broken spine, that human house.
It had been split from top to bottom and all the front was down. In a
single second one saw all the seared cellules of its rooms, the
geometric path of the flues, and a down quilt like viscera on the
skeleton of a bed. In the upper story an overhanging floor remained,
and there we saw the bodies of two officers, pierced and spiked to
their places round the table where they were lunching when the
lightning fell--a nice lunch, too, for we saw plates and glasses and a
bottle of champagne.
"It's Lieutenant Norbert and Lieutenant Ferrière."
One of these specters was standing, and with cloven jaws so enlarged
that his head was half open, he was smiling. One arm was raised aloft
in the festive gesture which he had begun forever. The other, his fine
fair hair untouched, was seated with his elbows on a cloth now red as a
Turkey carpet, hideously attentive, his face besmeared with shining
blood and full of foul marks. They seemed like two statues of youth
and the joy of life framed in horror.
"There's three!" some one shouted.
This one, whom we had not seen at first, hung in the air with dangling
arms against the sheer wall, hooked on to a beam by the bottom of his
trousers. A pool of blood which lengthened down the flat plaster
looked like a projected shadow. At each fresh explosion splinters were
scattered round him and shook him, as though the dead man was still
marked and chosen by the blind destruction.
There was something hatefully painful in the doll-like attitude of the
Then Termite's voice was raised. "Poor lad!" he said.
He went out from the shelter of the wall.
"Are you mad?" we shouted; "he's dead, anyway!"
A ladder was there. Termite seized it and dragged it towards the
disemboweled house, which was lashed every minute by broadsides of
"Termite!" cried the lieutenant, "I forbid you to go there! You're
doing no good."
"I'm the owner of my skin, lieutenant," Termite replied, without
stopping or looking round.
He placed the ladder, climbed up and unhooked the dead man. Around
them, against the plaster of the wall, there broke a surge of deafening
shocks and white fire. He descended with the body very skillfully,
laid it on the ground, and remaining doubled up he ran back to us--to
fall on the captain, who had witnessed the scene.
"My friend," the captain said, "I've been told that you were an
anarchist. But I've seen that you're brave, and that's already more
than half of a Frenchman."
He held out his hand. Termite took it, pretending to be little
impressed by the honor.
When he returned to us he said, while his hand rummaged his hedgehog's
beard, "That poor lad--I don't know why--p'raps it's stupid--but I was
thinking of his mother."
We looked at him with a sort of respect. First, because he had gone up
and then because he had passed through the hail of iron and won. There
was no one among us who did not earnestly wish he had tried and
succeeded in what Termite had just done. But assuredly we did not a
bit understand this strange soldier.
A lull had come in the bombardment. "It's over," we concluded.
As we returned we gathered round Termite and one spoke for the rest.
"You're an anarchist, then?"
"No," said Termite, "I'm an internationalist. That's why I enlisted."
He tried to throw light on his words. "You understand, I'm against all
"All wars! But there's times when war's good. There's defensive war."
"No," said Termite again, "there's only offensive war; because if there
wasn't the offensive there wouldn't be the defensive."
"Ah!" we replied.
We went on chatting, dispassionately and for the sake of talking,
strolling in the dubious security of the streets which were sometimes
darkened by falls of wreckage, under a sky of formidable surprises.
"All the same, isn't it chaps like you that prevented France from being
"There's not enough chaps like me to prevent anything; and if there'd
been more, there wouldn't have been any war."
"It's not to us, it's to the Boches and the others that you must say
"It's to all the world," said Termite; "that's why I'm an
While Termite was slipping away somewhere else his questioner indicated
by a gesture that he did not understand. "Never mind," he said to us,
"that chap's better than us."
Gradually it came about that we of the squad used to consult Termite on
any sort of subject, with a simplicity which made me smile--and
sometimes even irritated me. That week, for instance, some one asked
him, "All this firing--is it an attack they're getting ready?"
But he knew no more than the rest.
We did not leave for the trenches on the day we ought to have done.
Evening came, then night--nothing happened. On the morning of the
fifth day some of us were leaning, full of idleness and uncertainty,
against the front of a house that had been holed and bunged up again,
at the corner of a street. One of our comrades said to me, "Perhaps we
shall stay here till the end of the war."
There were signs of dissent, but all the same, the little street we had
not left on the appointed day seemed just then to resemble the streets
Near the place where we were watching the hours go by--and fumbling in
packets of that coarse tobacco that has skeletons in it--the hospital
was installed. Through the low door we saw a broken stream of poor
soldiers pass, sunken and bedraggled, with the sluggish eyes of
beggars; and the clean and wholesome uniform of the corporal who led
them stood forth among them.
They were always pretty much the same men who haunted the inspection
rooms. Many soldiers make it a point of honor never to report sick,
and in their obstinacy there is an obscure and profound heroism.
Others give way and come as often as possible to the gloomy places of
the Army Medical Corps, to run aground opposite the major's door.
Among these are found real human remnants in whom some visible or
secret malady persists.
The examining-room was contrived in a ground floor room whose furniture
had been pushed back in a heap. Through the open window came the voice
of the major, and by furtively craning our necks we could just see him
at the table, with his tabs and his eyeglass. Before him, half-naked
indigents stood, cap in hand, their coats on their arms, or their
trousers on their feet, pitifully revealing the man through the
soldier, and trying to make the most of the bleeding cords of their
varicose veins, or the arm from which a loose and cadaverous bandage
hung and revealed the hollow of an obstinate wound, laying stress on
their hernia or the everlasting bronchitis beyond their ribs. The
major was a good sort and, it seemed, a good doctor. But this time he
hardly examined the parts that were shown to him and his monotonous
verdict took wings into the street. "Fit to march--good--consultation
[Footnote 1: As a precaution against "scrimshanking," a penalty
attaches to "consultations" which are adjudged uncalled-for.--Tr.]
"Consultations," which merely send the soldier back into the ranks
continued indefinitely. No one was exempted from marching. Once we
heard the husky and pitiful voice of a simpleton who was dressing again
in recrimination. The doctor argued, in a good-natured way, and then
said, his voice suddenly serious, "Sorry, my good man, but I cannot
exempt you. I have certain instructions. Make an effort. You can
still do it."
We saw them come out, one by one, these creatures of deformed body and
dwindling movement, leaning on each other, as though attached, and
mumbling, "Nothing can be done, nothing."
Little Mélusson, reserved and wretched, with his long red nose between
his burning cheekbones, was standing among us in the idle file with
which the morning seemed vaguely in fellowship. He had not been to the
inspection, but he said, "I can carry on to-day still; but to-morrow I
shall knock under. To-morrow----"
We paid no attention to Mélusson's words. Some one near us said,
"Those instructions the major spoke of, they're a sign."
* * * * * *
On parade that same morning the chief, with his nose on a paper, read
out: "By order of the Officer Commanding," and then he stammered out
some names, names of some soldiers in the regiment brigaded with ours,
who had been shot for disobedience. There was a long list of them. At
the beginning of the reading a slight growl was heard going round.
Then, as the surnames came out, as they spread out in a crowd around
us, there was silence. This direct contact with the phantoms of the
executed set a wind of terror blowing and bowed all heads.
It was the same again on the days that followed. After parade orders,
the commandant, whom we rarely saw, mustered the four companies under
arms on some waste ground. He spoke to us of the military situation,
particularly favorable to us on the whole front, and of the final
victory which could not be long delayed. He made promises to us.
"Soon you will be at home," and smiled on us for the first time. He
said, "Men, I do not know what is going to happen, but when it should
be necessary I rely on you. As always, do your duty and be silent. It
is so easy to be silent and to act!"
We broke off and made ourselves scarce. Returned to quarters we
learned there was to be an inspection of cartridges and reserve rations
by the captain. We had hardly time to eat. Majorat waxed wroth, and
confided his indignation to Termite, who was a good audience, "It's all
the fault of that unlucky captain--we're just slaves!"
He shook his fist as he spoke towards the Town Hall.
But Termite shrugged his shoulders, looked at him unkindly, and said,
"Like a rotten egg, that's how you talk. That captain, and all the red
tabs and brass hats, it's not them that invented the rules. They're
just gilded machines--machines like you, but not so cheap. If you want
to do away with discipline, do away with war, my fellow; that's a sight
easier than to make it amusing for the private."
He left Majorat crestfallen, and the others as well. For my part I
admired the peculiar skill with which the anti-militarist could give
answers beside the mark and yet always seem to be in the right.
During those days they multiplied the route-marches and the exercises
intended to let the officers get the men again in hand. These
maneuvers tired us to death, and especially the sham attacks on wooded
mounds, carried out in the evening among bogs and thorn-thickets. When
we got back, most of the men fell heavily asleep just as they had
fallen, beside their knapsacks, without having the heart to eat.
Right in the middle of the night and this paralyzed slumber, a cry
echoed through the walls, "Alarm! Stand to arms!"
We were so weary that the brutal reveille seemed at first, to the
blinking and rusted men, like the shock of a nightmare. Then, while
the cold blew in through the open door and we heard the sentries
running through the streets, while the corporals lighted the candles
and shook us with their voices, we sat up askew, and crouched, and got
our things ready, and stood up and fell in shivering, with flabby legs
and minds befogged, in the black-hued street.
After the roll-call and some orders and counter-orders, we heard the
command "Forward!" and we left the rest-camp as exhausted as when we
entered it. And thus we set out, no one knew where.
At first it was the same exodus as always. It was on the same road
that we disappeared: into the same great circles of blackness that we
We came to the shattered glass works and then to the quarry, which
daybreak was washing and fouling and making its desolation more
complete. Fatigue was gathering darkly within us and abating our pace.
Faces appeared stiff and wan, and as though they were seen through
gratings. We were surrounded by cries of "Forward!" thrown from all
directions between the twilight of the sky and the night of the earth.
It took a greater effort every time to tear ourselves away from the
We were not the only regiment in movement in these latitudes. The
twilight depths were full. Across the spaces that surrounded the
quarry men were passing without ceasing and without limit, their feet
breaking and furrowing the earth like plows. And one guessed that the
shadows also were full of hosts going as we were to the four corners of
the unknown. Then the clay and its thousand barren ruts, these
corpse-like fields, fell away. Under the ashen tints of early day,
fog-banks of men descended the slopes. From the top I saw nearly the
whole regiment rolling into the deeps. As once of an evening in the
days gone by, I had a perception of the multitude's immensity and the
threat of its might, that might which surpasses all and is impelled by
We stopped and drew breath again; and on the gloomy edge of this gulf
some soldiers even amused themselves by inciting Termite to speak of
militarism and anti-militarism. I saw faces which laughed, through
their black and woeful pattern of fatigue, around the little man who
gesticulated in impotence. Then we had to set off again.
We had never passed that way but in the dark, and we did not recognize
the scenes now that we saw them. From the lane which we descended,
holding ourselves back, to gain the trench, we saw for the first time
the desert through which we had so often passed--plains and lagoons
The waterlogged open country, with its dispirited pools and their
smoke-like islets of trees, seemed nothing but a reflection of the
leaden, cloud-besmirched sky. The walls of the trenches, pallid as
ice-floes, marked with their long, sinuous crawling where they had been
slowly torn from the earth by the shovels. These embossings and canals
formed a complicated and incalculable network, smudged near at hand by
bodies and wreckage; dreary and planetary in the distance. One could
make out the formal but hazy stakes and posts, aligned in the distance
to the end of sight; and here and there the swellings and round
ink-blots of the dugouts. In some sections of trench one could
sometimes even descry black lines, like a dark wall between other
walls, and these lines stirred--they were the workmen of destruction.
A whole region in the north, on higher ground, was a forest flown away,
leaving only a stranded bristling of masts, like a quayside. There was
thunder in the sky, but it was drizzling, too, and even the flashes
were gray above that infinite liquefaction in which each regiment was
as lost as each man.
We entered the plain and disappeared into the trench. The "open
crossing" was now pierced by a trench, though it was little more than
begun. Amid the smacks of the bullets which blurred its edges we had
to crawl flat on our bellies, along the sticky bottom of this gully.
The close banks gripped and stopped our packs so that we floundered
perforce like swimmers, to go forward in the earth, under the murder in
the air. For a second the anguish and the effort stopped my heart and
in a nightmare I saw the cadaverous littleness of my grave closing over
At the end of this torture we got up again, in spite of the knapsacks.
The last star-shells were sending a bloody _aurora borealis_ into the
morning. Sudden haloes drew our glances and crests of black smoke went
up like cypresses. On both sides, in front and behind, we heard the
fearful suicide of shells.
* * * * * *
We marched in the earth's interior until evening. From time to time
one hoisted the pack up or pressed down one's cap into the sweat of the
forehead; had it fallen it could not have been picked up again in the
mechanism of the march; and then we began again to fight with the
distance. The hand contracted on the rifle-sling was tumefied by the
shoulder-straps and the bent arm was broken.
Like a regular refrain the lamentation of Mélusson came to me. He kept
saying that he was going to stop, but he did not stop, ever, and he
even butted into the back of the man in front of him when the whistle
went for a halt.
The mass of the men said nothing. And the greatness of this silence,
this despotic and oppressive motion, irritated Adjutant Marcassin, who
would have liked to see some animation. He rated and lashed us with a
vengeance. He hustled the file in the narrowness of the trench as he
clove to the corners so as to survey his charge. But then he had no
Through the heavy distant noise of our tramping, through the funereal
consolation of our drowsiness, we heard the adjutant's ringing voice,
violently reprimanding this or the other. "Where have you seen, swine,
that there can be patriotism without hatred? Do you think one can love
his own country if he doesn't hate the others?"
When some one spoke banteringly of militarism--for no one, except
Termite, who didn't count, took the word seriously--Marcassin growled
despairingly, "French militarism and Prussian militarism, they're not
the same thing, for one's French and the other's Prussian!"
But we felt that all these wrangles only shocked and wearied him. He
was instantly and gloomily silent.
We were halted to mount guard in a part we had never seen before, and
for that reason it seemed worse than the others to us at first. We had
to scatter and run up and down the shelterless trench all night, to
avoid the plunging files of shells. That night was but one great crash
and we were strewn in the middle of it among black puddles, upon a
ghostly background of earth. We moved on again in the morning,
bemused, and the color of night. In front of the column we still heard
the cry "Forward!" Then we redoubled the violence of our effort, we
extorted some little haste from out us; and the soaked and frozen
company went on under cathedrals of cloud which collapsed in flames,
victims of a fate whose name they had no time to seek, a fate which
only let its force be felt, like God.
During the day, and much farther on, they cried "Halt!" and the
smothered sound of the march was silent. From the trench in which we
collapsed under our packs, while another lot went away, we could see as
far as a railway embankment. The far end of the loophole-pipe enframed
tumbledown dwellings and cabins, ruined gardens where the grass and the
flowers were interred, enclosures masked by palings, fragments of
masonry to which eloquent remains of posters even still clung--a corner
full of artificial details, of human things, of illusions. The railway
bank was near, and in the network of wire stretched between it and us
many bodies were fast-caught as flies.
The elements had gradually dissolved those bodies and time had worn
them out. With their dislocated gestures and point-like heads they
were but lightly hooked to the wire. For whole hours our eyes were
fixed on this country all obstructed by a machinery of wires and full
of men who were not on the ground. One, swinging in the wind, stood
out more sharply than the others, pierced like a sieve a hundred times
through and through, and a void in the place of his heart. Another
specter, quite near, had doubtless long since disintegrated, while held
up by his clothes. At the time when the shadow of night began to seize
us in its greatness a wind arose, a wind which shook the desiccated
creature, and he emptied himself of a mass of mold and dust. One saw
the sky's whirlwind, dark and disheveled, in the place where the man
had been; the soldier was carried away by the wind and buried in the
Towards the end of the afternoon the piercing whistle of the bullets
was redoubled. We were riddled and battered by the noise. The
wariness with which we watched the landscape that was watching us
seemed to exasperate Marcassin. He pondered an idea; then came to a
sudden decision and cried triumphantly, "Look!"
He climbed to the parapet, stood there upright, shook his fist at space
with the blind and simple gesture of the apostle who is offering his
example and his heart, and shouted, "Death to the Boches!"
Then he came down, quivering with the faith of his self-gift.
"Better not do that again," growled the soldiers who were lined up in
the trench, gorgonized by the extraordinary sight of a living man
standing, for no reason, on a front line parapet in broad daylight,
stupefied by the rashness they admired although it outstripped them.
"Why not? Look!"
Marcassin sprang up once more. Lean and erect, he stood like a poplar,
and raising both arms straight into the air, he yelled, "I believe only
in the glory of France!"
Nothing else was left for him; he was but a conviction. Hardly had he
spoken thus in the teeth of the invisible hurricane when he opened his
arms, assumed the shape of a cross against the sky, spun round, and
fell noisily into the middle of the trench and of our cries.
He had rolled onto his belly. We gathered round him. With a jerk he
turned on to his back, his arms slackened, and his gaze drowned in his
eyes. His blood began to spread around him, and we drew our great
boots away, that we should not walk on that blood.
"He died like an idiot," said Margat in a choking voice; "but by God
He took off his cap, saluted awkwardly and stood with bowed head.
"Committing suicide for an idea, it's fine," mumbled Vidaine.
"It's fine, it's fine!" other voices said.
And these little words fluttered down like leaves and petals onto the
body of the great dead soldier.
"Where's his cap, that he thought so much of?" groaned his orderly,
Aubeau, looking in all directions.
"Up there, to be sure: I'll fetch it," said Termite.
The comical man went for the relic. He mounted the parapet in his
turn, coolly, but bending low. We saw him ferreting about, frail as a
poor monkey on the terrible crest. At last he put his hand on the cap
and jumped into the trench. A smile sparkled in his eyes and in the
middle of his beard, and his brass "cold meat ticket" jingled on his
They took the body away. The men carried it and a third followed with
the cap. One of us said, "The war's over for him!" And during the
dead man's recessional we were mustered, and we continued to draw
nearer to the unknown. But everything seemed to recede as fast as we
advanced, even events.
* * * * * *
We wandered five days, six days, in the lines, almost without sleeping.
We stood for hours, for half-nights and half-days, waiting for ways to
be clear that we could not see. Unceasingly they made us go back on
our tracks and begin over again. We mounted guard in trenches, we
fitted ourselves into some stripped and sinister corner which stood out
against a charred twilight or against fire. We were condemned to see
the same abysses always.
For two nights we bent fiercely to the mending of an old third-line
trench above the ruin of its former mending. We repaired the long
skeleton, soft and black, of its timbers. From that dried-up drain we
besomed the rubbish of equipment, of petrified weapons, of rotten
clothes and of victuals, of a sort of wreckage of forest and
house--filthy, incomparably filthy, infinitely filthy. We worked by
night and hid by day. The only light for us was the heavy dawn of
evening when they dragged us from sleep. Eternal night covered the
After the labor, as soon as daybreak began to replace night with
melancholy, we buried ourselves methodically in the depth of the
caverns there. Only a deadened murmur penetrated to them, but the rock
moved by reason of the earthquakes. When some one lighted his pipe, by
that gleam we looked at each other. We were fully equipped; we could
start away at any minute; it was forbidden to take off the heavy
jingling chain of cartridges around us.
I heard some one say, "In _my_ country there are fields, and paths, and
the sea; nowhere else in the world is there that."
Among these shades of the cave--an abode of the first men as it
seemed--I saw the hand start forth of him who existed on the spectacle
of the fields and the sea, who was trying to show it and to seize it;
or I saw around a vague halo four card-players stubbornly bent upon
finding again something of an ancient and peaceful attachment in the
faces of the cards; or I saw Margat flourish a Socialist paper that had
fallen from Termite's pocket, and burst into laughter at the censored
blanks it contained. And Majorat raged against life, caressed his
reserve bottle with his lips till out of breath and then, appeased and
his mouth dripping, said it was the only way to alleviate his
imprisonment. Then sleep slew words and gestures and thoughts. I kept
repeating some phrase to myself, trying in vain to understand it; and
sleep submerged me, ancestral sleep so dreary and so deep that it seems
there had only and ever been one long, lone sleep here on earth, above
which our few actions float, and which ever returns to fill the flesh
of man with night.
Forward! Our nights are torn from us in lots. The bodies, invaded by
caressing poison, and even by confidences and apparitions, shake
themselves and stand up again. We extricate ourselves from the hole,
and emerge from the density of buried breath; stumbling we climb into
icy space, odorless, infinite space. The oscillation of the march,
assailed on both sides by the trench, brings brief and paltry halts, in
which we recline against the walls, or cast ourselves on them. We
embrace the earth, since nothing else is left us to embrace.
Then Movement seizes us again. Metrified by regular jolts, by the
shock of each step, by our prisoned breathing, it loses its hold no
more, but becomes incarnate in us. It sets one small word resounding
in our heads, between our teeth--"Forward!"--longer, more infinite than
the uproar of the shells. It sets us making, towards the east or
towards the north, bounds which are days and nights in length. It
turns us into a chain which rolls along with a sound of steel--the
metallic hammering of rifle, bayonet, cartridges, and of the tin cup
which shines on the dark masses like a bolt. Wheels, gearing,
machinery! One sees life and the reality of things striking and
consuming and forging each other.
We knew well enough that we were going towards some tragedy that the
chiefs knew of; but the tragedy was above all in the going there.
* * * * * *
We changed country. We left the trenches and climbed out upon the
earth--along a great incline which hid the enemy horizon from us and
protected us against him. The blackening dampness turned the cold into
a thing, and laid frozen shudders on us. A pestilence surrounded us,
wide and vague; and sometimes lines of pale crosses alongside our march
spelled out death in a more precise way.
It was our tenth night; it was at the end of all our nights, and it
seemed greater than they. The distances groaned, roared and growled,
and would sometimes abruptly define the crest of the incline among the
winding sheets of the mists. The intermittent flutters of light showed
me the soldier who marched in front of me. My eyes, resting in fixity
on him, discovered his sheepskin coat, his waist-belt, straining at the
shoulder-straps, dragged by the metal-packed cartridge pouches, by the
bayonet, by the trench-tool; his round bags, pushed backwards; his
swathed and hooded rifle; his knapsack, packed lengthways so as not to
give a handle to the earth which goes by on either side; the blanket,
the quilt, the tentcloth, folded accordion-wise on the top of each
other, and the whole surmounted by the mess-tin, ringing like a
mournful bell, higher than his head. What a huge, heavy and mighty
mass the armed soldier is, near at hand and when one is looking at
Once, in consequence of a command badly given or badly understood, the
company wavered, flowed back and pawed the ground in disorder on the
declivity. Fifty men, who were all alike by reason of their sheepskins
ran here and there and one by one--a vague collection of evasive men,
small and frail, not knowing what to do; while non-coms ran round them,
abused and gathered them. Order began again, and against the whitish
and bluish sheets spread by the star-shells I saw the pendulums of the
step once more fall into line under the long body of shadows.
During the night there was a distribution of brandy. By the light of
lanterns we saw the cups held out, shaking and gleaming. The libation
drew from our entrails a moment of delight and uplifting. The liquid's
fierce flow awoke deep impulses, restored the martial mien to us, and
made us grasp our rifles with a victorious desire to kill.
But the night was longer than that dream. Soon, the kind of goddess
superposed on our shadows left our hands and our heads, and that thrill
of glory was of no use.
Indeed, its memory filled our hearts with a sort of bitterness. "You
see, there's no trenches anywhere about here," grumbled the men.
"And why are there no trenches?" said a wrongheaded man; "why, it's
because they don't care a damn for soldiers' lives."
"Fathead!" the corporal interrupted; "what's the good of trenches
behind, if there's one in front, fathead!"
* * * * * *
We saw the Divisional Staff go by in the beam of a searchlight. In
that valley of night it might have been a procession of princes rising
from a subterranean palace. On cuffs and sleeves and collars badges
wagged and shone, golden aureoles encircled the heads of this group of
The flashing made us start and awoke us forcibly, as it did the night.
The men had been pressed back upon the side of the sunken hollow to
clear the way; and they watched, blended with the solidity of the dark.
Each great person in his turn pierced the fan of moted sunshine, and
each was lighted up for some paces. Hidden and abashed, the
shadow-soldiers began to speak in very low voices of those who went by
They who passed first, guiding the Staff, were the company and
battalion officers. We knew them. The quiet comments breathed from
the darkness were composed either of praises or curses; these were good
and clear-sighted officers; those were triflers or skulkers.
"That's one that's killed some men!"
"That's one I'd be killed for!"
"The infantry officer who really does all he ought," Pélican declared,
"well, he get's killed."
"Or else he's lucky."
"There's black and there's white in the company officers. At bottom
you know, I say they're men. It's just a chance you've got whether you
tumble on the good or the bad sort. No good worrying. It's just
"More's the pity for us."
The soldier who said that smiled vaguely, lighted by a reflection from
the chiefs. One read in his face an acquiescence which recalled to me
certain beautiful smiles I had caught sight of in former days on
toilers' humble faces. Those who are around me are saying to
themselves, "Thus it is written," and they think no farther than that,
massed all mistily in the darkness, like vague hordes of negroes.
Then officers went by of whom we did not speak, because we did not know
them. These unknown tab-bearers made a greater impression than the
others; and besides, their importance and their power were increasing.
We saw rows of increasing crowns on the caps. Then, the shadow-men
were silent. The eulogy and the censure addressed to those whom one
had seen at work had no hold on these, and all those minor things faded
away. These were admired in the lump.
This superstition made me smile. But the general of the division
himself appeared in almost sacred isolation. The tabs and
thunderbolts and stripes of his satellites glittered at a respectful
distance only. Then it seemed to me that I was face to face with Fate
itself--the will of this man. In his presence a sort of instinct
[Footnote 1: Distinctive badge for Staff officers and others.--Tr.]
"Packs up! Forward!"
We took back upon our hips and neck the knapsack which had the shape
and the weight of a yoke, which every minute that falls on it weighs
down more dourly. The common march went on again. It filled a great
space; it shook the rocky slopes with its weight. In vain I bent my
head--I could not hear the sound of my own steps, so blended was it
with the others. And I repeated obstinately to myself that one had to
admire the intelligent force which sets all this deep mass in movement,
which says to us or makes us say, "Forward!" or "It has to be!" or "You
will _not_ know!" which hurls the world we are into a whirlpool so
great that we do not even see the direction of our fall, into
profundities we cannot see because they are profound. We have need of
masters who know all that we do not know.
* * * * * *
Our weariness so increased and overflowed that it seemed as if we grew
bigger at every step! And then one no longer thought of fatigue. We
had forgotten it, as we had forgotten the number of the days and even
their names. Always we made one step more, always.
Ah, the infantry soldiers, the pitiful Wandering Jews who are always
marching! They march mathematically, in rows of four numbers, or in
file in the trenches, four-squared by their iron load, but separate,
separate. Bent forward they go, almost prostrated, trailing their
legs, kicking the dead. Slowly, little by little, they are wounded by
the length of time, by the incalculable repetition of movements, by the
greatness of things. They are borne down by their bones and muscles,
by their own human weight. At halts of only ten minutes, they sink
down. "There's no time to sleep!" "No matter," they say, and they go
to sleep as happy people do.
* * * * * *
Suddenly we learned that nothing was going to happen! It was all over
for us, and we were going to return to the rest-camp. We said it over
again to ourselves. And one evening they said, "We're returning,"
although they did not know, as they went on straight before them,
whether they were going forward or backward.
In the plaster-kiln which we are marching past there is a bit of
candle, and sunk underneath its feeble illumination there are four men.
Nearer, one sees that it is a soldier, guarding three prisoners. The
sight of these enemy soldiers in greenish and red rags gives us an
impression of power, of victory. Some voices question them in passing.
They are dismayed and stupefied; the fists that prop up their yellow
cheekbones protrude triangular caricatures of features. Sometimes, at
the cut of a frank question, they show signs of lifting their heads,
and awkwardly try to give vent to an answer.
"What's he say, that chap?" they asked Sergeant Müller.
"He says that war's none of their fault; it's the big people's."
"The swine!" grunts Margat.
We climb the hill and go down the other side of it. Meandering, we
steer towards the infernal glimmers down yonder. At the foot of the
hill we stop. There ought to be a clear view, but it is
evening--because of the bad weather and because the sky is full of
black things and of chemical clouds with unnatural colors. Storm is
blended with war. Above the fierce and furious cry of the shells I
heard, in domination over all, the peaceful boom of thunder.
They plant us in subterranean files, facing a wide plain of gentle
gradient which dips from the horizon towards us, a plain with a rolling
jumble of thorn-brakes and trees, which the gale is seizing by the
hair. Squalls charged with rain and cold are passing over and
immensifying it; and there are rivers and cataclysms of clamor along
the trajectories of the shells. Yonder, under the mass of the rust-red
sky and its sullen flames, there opens a yellow rift where trees stand
forth like gallows. The soil is dismembered. The earth's covering has
been blown a lot in slabs, and its heart is seen reddish and lined
white--butchery as far as the eye can see.
There is nothing now but to sit down and recline one's back as
conveniently as possible. We stay there and breathe and live a little;
we are calm, thanks to that faculty we have of never seeing either the
past or the future.
* * * * * *
WHITHER GOEST THOU?
But soon a shiver has seized all of us.
"Listen! It's stopped! Listen!"
The whistle of bullets has completely ceased, and the artillery also.
The lull is fantastic. The longer it lasts the more it pierces us with
the uneasiness of beasts. We lived in eternal noise; and now that it
is hiding, it shakes and rouses us, and would drive us mad.
We rub our eyelids and open wide our eyes. We hoist our heads with no
precaution above the crumbled parapet. We question each other--"D'you
No doubt about it; the shadows are moving along the ground wherever one
looks. There is no point in the distance where they are not moving.
Some one says at last:--
"Why, it's the Boches, to be sure!"
And then we recognize on the sloping plain the immense geographical
form of the army that is coming upon us!
* * * * * *
Behind and in front of us together, a terrible crackle bursts forth and
makes somber captives of us in the depth of a valley of flames, and
flames which illuminate the plain of men marching over the plain. They
reveal them afar, in incalculable number, with the first ranks
detaching themselves, wavering a little, and forming again, the chalky
soil a series of points and lines like something written!
Gloomy stupefaction makes us dumb in face of that living immensity.
Then we understand that this host whose fountain-head is out of sight
is being frightfully cannonaded by our 75's; the shells set off behind
us and arrive in front of us. In the middle of the lilliputian ranks
the giant smoke-clouds leap like hellish gods. We see the flashes of
the shells which are entering that flesh scattered over the earth. It
is smashed and burned entirely in places, and that nation advances like
Without a stop it overflows towards us. Continually the horizon
produces new waves. We hear a vast and gentle murmur rise. With their
tearing lights and their dull glimmers they resemble in the distance a
whole town making festival in the evening.
We can do nothing against the magnitude of that attack, the greatness
of that sum total. When a gun has fired short, we see more clearly the
littleness of each shot. Fire and steel are drowned in all that life;
it closes up and re-forms like the sea.
We fire desperately. But we have not many cartridges. Since we came
into the first line they have ceased to inspect our load of ammunition;
and many men, especially these last days, have got rid of a part of the
burden which bruises hips and belly and tears away the skin. They who
are coming do not fire; and above the long burning thicket of our line
one can see them still flowing from the east. They are closely massed
in ranks. One would say they clung to each other as though welded.
They are not using their rifles. Their only weapon is the infinity of
their number. They are coming to bury us under their feet.
Suddenly a shift in the wind brings us the smell of ether. The
divisions advancing on us are drunk! We declare it, we tell it to
"They're on fire! They're on fire!" cries the trembling voice of the
man beside me, whose shoulders are shaken by the shots he is hurling.
They draw near. They are lighted from below along the descent by the
flashing footlights of our fire; they grow bigger, and already we can
make out the forms of soldiers. They are at the same time in order and
in disorder. Their outlines are rigid, and one divines faces of stone.
Their rifles are slung and they have nothing in their hands. They come
on like sleep-walkers, only knowing how to put one foot before the
other, and surely they are singing. Yonder, in the bulk of the
invasion, the guns continue to destroy whole walls and whole structures
of life at will. On the edges of it we can clearly see isolated
silhouettes and groups as they fall, with an extended line of figures
Now they are there, fifty paces away, breathing their ether into our
faces. We do not know what to do. We have no more cartridges. We fix
bayonets, our ears filled with that endless, undefined murmur which
comes from their mouths and the hollow rolling of the flood that
A shout spreads behind us:
"Orders to fall back!"
We bow down and evacuate the trench by openings at the back. There are
not a lot of us, we who thought we were so many. The trench is soon
empty, and we climb the hill that we descended in coming. We go up
towards our 75's, which are in lines behind the ridge and still
thundering. We climb at a venture, in the open, by vague paths and
tracks of mud; there are no trenches. During the gray ascent it is a
little clearer than a while ago: they do not fire on us. If they fired
on us, we should be killed. We climb in flagging jumps, in jerks,
pounded by the panting of the following waves that push us before them,
closely beset by their clattering, nor turning round to look again. We
hoist ourselves up the trembling flanks of the volcano that clamors up
yonder. Along with us are emptied batteries also climbing, and horses
and clouds of steam and all the horror of modern war. Each man pushes
this retreat on, and is pushed by it; and as our panting becomes one
long voice, we go up and up, baffled by our own weight which tries to
fall back, deformed by our knapsacks, bent and silent as beasts.
From the summit we see the trembling inundation, murmuring and
confused, filling the trenches we have just left, and seeming already
to overflow them. But our eyes and ears are violently monopolized by
the two batteries between which we are passing; they are firing into
the infinity of the attackers, and each shot plunges into life. Never
have I been so affected by the harrowing sight of artillery fire. The
tubes bark and scream in crashes that can hardly be borne; they go and
come on their brakes in starts of fantastic distinctness and violence.
In the hollows where the batteries lie hid, in the middle of a
fan-shaped phosphorescence, we see the silhouettes of the gunners as
they thrust in the shells. Every time they maneuver the breeches,
their chests and arms are scorched by a tawny reflection. They are
like the implacable workers of blast furnace; the breeches are reddened
by the heat of the explosions, the steel of the guns is on fire in the
For some minutes now they have fired more slowly--as if they were
becoming exhausted. A few far-apart shots--the batteries fire no more;
and now that the salvos are extinguished, we see the fire in the steel
In the abysmal silence we hear a gunner groan:--
"There's no more shell."
The shadow of twilight resumes its place in the sky--henceforward
empty. It grows cold. There is a mysterious and terrible mourning.
Around me, springing from the obscurity, are groans and gasps for
breath, loaded backs which disappear, stupefied eyes, and the gestures
of men who wipe the sweat from their foreheads. The order to retire is
repeated, in a tone that grips us--one would call it a cry of distress.
There is a confused and dejected trampling; and then we descend, we go
away the way we came, and the host follows itself heavily and makes
more steps into the gulf.
* * * * * *
When we have gone again down the slope of the hill, we find ourselves
once more in the bottom of a valley, for another height begins. Before
ascending it, we stop to take breath, but ready to set off again should
the flood-tide appear on the ridge yonder. We find ourselves in the
middle of grassy expanses, without trenches or defense, and we are
astonished not to see the supports. We are in the midst of a sort of
We sit down here and there; and some one with his forehead bowed almost
to his knees, translating the common thought, says:--
"It's none of our fault."
Our lieutenant goes up to the man, puts his hand on his shoulder, and
"No, my lads, it's none of your fault."
Just then some sections join us who say, "We're the rearguard." And
some add that the two batteries of 75's up yonder are already captured.
A whistle rings out--"Come, march!"
We continue the retreat. There are two battalions of us in all--no
soldier in front of us; no French soldier behind us. I have neighbors
who are unknown to me, motley men, routed and stupefied, artillery and
engineers; unknown men who come and go away, who seem to be born and
seem to die.
At one time we get a glimpse of some confusion in the orders from
above. A Staff officer, issuing from no one knew where, throws himself
in front of us, bars our way, and questions us in a tragic voice:--
"What are you miserable men doing? Are you running away? Forward in
the name of France! I call upon you to return. Forward!"
The soldiers, who would never have thought of retiring without orders,
are stunned, and can make nothing of it.
"We're going back because they told us to go back."
But they obey. They turn right about face. Some of them have already
begun to march forward, and they call to their comrades:--
"Hey there! This way, it seems!"
But the order to retire returns definitely, and we obey once more,
fuming against those who do not know what they say; and the ebb carries
away with it the officer who shouted amiss.
The march speeds up, it becomes precipitate and haggard. We are swept
along by an impetuosity that we submit to without knowing whence it
comes. We begin the ascent of the second hill which appears in the
fallen night a mountain.
When fairly on it we hear round us, on all sides and quite close, a
terrible pit-pat, and the long low hiss of mown grass. There is a
crackling afar in the sky, and they who glance back for a second in the
awesome storm see the cloudy ridges catch fire horizontally. It means
that the enemy have mounted machine guns on the summit we have just
abandoned, and that the place where we are is being hacked by the
knives of bullets. On all sides soldiers wheel and rattle down with
curses, sighs and cries. We grab and hang on to each other, jostling
as if we were fighting.
The rest at last reach the top of the rise; and just at that moment the
lieutenant cries in a clear and heartrending voice:
"Good-by, my lads!"
We see him fall, and he is carried away by the survivors around him.
From the summit we go a few steps down the other side, and lie on the
ground in silence. Some one asks, "The lieutenant?"
"Ah," says the soldier, "and how he said good-by to us!"
We breathe a little now. We do not think any more unless it be that we
are at last saved, at last lying down.
Some engineers fire star-shells, to reconnoiter the state of things in
the ground we have evacuated. Some have the curiosity to risk a glance
over it. On the top of the first hill--where our guns were--the big
dazzling plummets show a line of bustling excitement. One hears the
noises of picks and of mallet blows.
They have stopped their advance and are consolidating there. They are
hollowing their trenches and planting their network of wire--which will
have to be taken again some day. We watch, outspread on our bellies,
or kneeling, or sitting lower down, with our empty rifles beside us.
Margat reflects, shakes his head and says:--
"Wire would have stopped them just now. But we had no wire."
"And machine-guns, too! but where are they, the M.G.s?"
We have a distinct feeling that there has been an enormous blunder in
the command. Want of foresight--the reënforcements were not there;
they had not thought of supports. There were not enough guns to bar
their way, nor enough artillery ammunition; with our own eyes we had
seen two batteries cease fire in mid-action--they had not thought of
shells. In a wide stretch of country, as one could see, there were no
defense work, no trenches; they had not thought of trenches.
It is obvious even to the common eyes of common soldiers.
"What could we do?" says one of us; "it's the chiefs."
We say it and we should repeat it if we were not up again and swept
away in the hustle of a fresh departure, and thrown back upon more
immediate and important anxieties.
* * * * * *
We do not know where we are.
We have marched all night. More weariness bends our spines again, more
obscurity hums in our heads. By following the bed of a valley, we have
found trenches again, and then men. These splayed and squelched
alleys, with their fat and sinking sandbags, their props which rot like
limbs, flow into wider pockets where activity prevails--battalion H.Q.,
or dressing-stations. About midnight we saw, through the golden line
of a dugout's half-open door, some officers seated at a white table--a
cloth or a map. Some one cries, "They're lucky!" The company officers
are exposed to dangers as we are, but only in attacks and reliefs. We
suffer long. They have neither the vigil at the loophole, nor the
knapsack, nor the fatigues. What always lasts is greater.
And now the walls of flabby flagstones and the open-mouthed caves have
begun again. Morning rises, long and narrow as our lot. We reach a
busy trench-crossing. A stench catches my throat: some cess-pool into
which these streets suspended in the earth empty their sewage? No, we
see rows of stretchers, each one swollen. There is a tent there of
gray canvas, which flaps like a flag, and on its fluttering wall the
dawn lights up a bloody cross.
* * * * * *
Sometimes, when we are high enough for our eyes to unbury themselves, I
can dimly see some geometrical lines, so confused, so desolated by
distance, that I do not know if it is our country or the other; even
when one sees he does not know. Our looks are worn away in looking.
We do not see, we are powerless to people the world. We all have
nothing in common but eyes of evening and a soul of night.
And always, always, in these trenches whose walls run down like waves,
with their stale stinks of chlorine and sulphur, chains of soldiers go
forward endlessly, towing each other. They go as quickly as they can,
as if the walls were going to close upon them. They are bowed as if
they were always climbing, wholly dark under colossal packs which they
carry without stopping, from one place to another place, as they might
rocks in hell. From minute to minute we are filling the places of the
obliterated hosts who have passed this way like the wind or have stayed
here like the earth.
We halt in a funnel. We lean our backs against the walls, resting the
packs on the projections which bristle from them. But we examine these
things coming out of the earth, and we smell that they are knees,
elbows and heads. They were interred there one day and the following
days are disinterring them. At the spot where I am, from which I have
roughly and heavily recoiled with all my armory, a foot comes out from
a subterranean body and protrudes. I try to put it out of the way, but
it is strongly incrusted. One would have to break the corpse of steel,
to make it disappear. I look at the morsel of mortality. My thoughts,
and I cannot help them, are attracted by the horizontal body that the
world bruises; they go into the ground with it and mold a shape for it.
Its face--what is the look which rots crushed in the dark depth of the
earth at the top of these remains? Ah, one catches sight of what there
is under the battlefields! Everywhere in the spacious wall there are
limbs, and black and muddy gestures. It is a sepulchral sculptor's
great sketch-model, a bas-relief in clay that stands haughtily before
our eyes. It is the portal of the earth's interior; yes, it is the
gate of hell.
* * * * * *
In order to get here, I slept as I marched; and now I have an illusion
that I am hidden in this little cave, cooped up against the curve of
the roof. I am no more than this gentle cry of the flesh--Sleep! As I
begin to doze and people myself with dreams, a man comes in. He is
unarmed, and he ransacks us with the stabbing white point of his
flash-lamp. It is the colonel's batman. He says to our adjutant as
soon as he finds him:--
"Six fatigue men wanted."
The adjutant's bulk rises and yawns:--
"Butsire, Vindame, Margat, Termite, Paulin, Rémus!" he orders as he
goes to sleep again.
We emerge from the cave; and more slowly, from our drowsiness. We find
ourselves standing in a village street. But as soon as we touch the
open air, dazzling roars precede and follow us, mere handful of men as
we are, abruptly revealing us to each other. We hurl ourselves like a
pack of hounds into the first door or the first gaping hole, and there
are some who cry that: "We are marked. We're given away!"
After the porterage fatigue we go back. I settle myself in my corner,
heavier, more exhausted, more buried in the bottom of everything. I
was beginning to sleep, to go away from myself, lulled by a voice which
sought in vain the number of the days we had been on the move, and was
repeating the names of the nights--Thursday, Friday, Saturday--when the
man with the pointed light returns, demands a gang, and I set off with
the others. It is so again for a third time. As soon as we are
outside, the night, which seems to lie in wait for us, sends us a
squall, with its thunderous destruction of space; it scatters us; then
we are drawn together and joined up. We carry thick planks, two by
two; and then piles of sacks which blind the bearers with a plastery
dust and make them reel like masts.
Then the last time, the most terrible, it was wire. Each of us takes
into his hands a great hoop of coiled wire, as tall as ourselves, and
weighing over sixty pounds. When one carries it, the supple wheel
stretches out like an animal; it is set dancing by the least movement,
it works into the flesh of the shoulder, and strikes one's feet. Mine
tries to cling to me and pull me up and throw me to the ground. With
this malignantly heavy thing, animated with barbarous and powerful
movement, I cross the ruins of a railway station, all stones and beams.
We clamber up an embankment which slips away and avoids us, we drag and
push the rebellious and implacable burden. It cannot be reached, that
receding height. But we reach it, all the same.
Ah, I am a normal man! I cling to life, and I have the consciousness
of duty. But at that moment I called from the bottom of my heart for
the bullet which would have delivered me from life.
We return, with empty hands, in a sort of sinister comfort. I
remember, as we came in, a neighbor said to me--or to some one else:
"Sheets of corrugated iron are worse."
The fatigues have to be stopped at dawn, although the engineers protest
against the masses of stores which uselessly fill the depot.
We sleep from six to seven in the morning. In the last traces of night
we emigrate from the cave, blinking like owls.
"Where's the juice?" we ask.
[Footnote 1: Coffee.]
There is none. The cooks are not there, nor the mess people. And they
In the dull and pallid morning, on the approaches to a village, there
appear gardens, which no longer have human shape. Instead of
cultivation there are puddles and mud. All is burned or drowned, and
the walls scattered like bones everywhere; and we see the mottled and
bedaubed shadows of soldiers. War befouls the country as it does faces
Our company gets going, gray and wan, broken down by the infamous
weariness. We halt in front of a hangar:--
"Those that are tired can leave their packs," the new sergeant advises;
"they'll find them again here."
"If we're leaving our packs, it means we're going to attack," says an
He says it, but he does not know.
One by one, on the dirty soil of the hangar, the knapsacks fall like
bodies. Some men, however, are mistrustful, and prefer to keep their
packs. Under all circumstances there are always exceptions.
Forward! The same shouts put us again in movement. Forward! Come,
get up! Come on, march! Subdue your refractory flesh; lift yourselves
from your slumber as from a coffin, begin yourselves again without
ceasing, give all that you can give--Forward! Forward! It has to be.
It is a higher concern than yours, a law from above. We do not know
what it is. We only know the step we make; and even by day one marches
in the night. And then, one cannot help it. The vague thoughts and
little wishes that we had in the days when we were concerned with
ourselves are ended. There is no way now of escaping from the wheels
of fate, no way now of turning aside from fatigue and cold, disgust and
pain. Forward! The world's hurricane drives straight before them
these terribly blind who grope with their rifles.
We have passed through a wood, and then plunged again into the earth.
We are caught in an enfilading fire. It is terrible to pass in broad
daylight in these communication trenches, at right angles to the lines,
where one is in view all the way. Some soldiers are hit and fall.
There are light eddies and brief obstructions in the places where they
dive; and then the rest, a moment halted by the barrier, sometimes
still living, frown in the wide-open direction of death, and say:--
"Well, if it's got to be, come on. Get on with it!"
They deliver up their bodies wholly--their warm bodies, that the bitter
cold and the wind and the sightless death touch as with women's hands.
In these contacts between living beings and force, there is something
carnal, virginal, divine.
* * * * * *
They have sent me into a listening post. To get there I had to worm
myself, bent double, along a low and obstructed sap. In the first
steps I was careful not to walk on the obstructions, and then I had to,
and I dared. My foot trembled on the hard or supple masses which
peopled that sap.
On the edge of the hole--there had been a road above it formerly, or
perhaps even a market-place--the trunk of a tree severed near the
ground arose, short as a grave-stone. The sight stopped me for a
moment, and my heart, weakened no doubt by my physical destitution,
kindled with pity for the tree become a tomb!
Two hours later I rejoined the section in its pit. We abide there,
while the cannonade increases. The morning goes by, then the
afternoon. Then it is evening.
They make us go into a wide dugout. It appears that an attack is
developing somewhere. From time to time, through a breach contrived
between sandbags so decomposed and oozing that they seem to have lived,
we go out to a little winterly and mournful crossing, to look about.
We consult the sky to determine the tempest's whereabouts. We can know
The artillery fire dazzles and then chokes up our sight. The heavens
are making a tumult of blades.
Monuments of steel break loose and crash above our heads. Under the
sky, which is dark as with threat of deluge, the explosions throw livid
sunshine in all directions. From one end to the other of the visible
world the fields move and descend and dissolve, and the immense expanse
stumbles and falls like the sea. Towering explosions in the east, a
squall in the south; in the zenith a file of bursting shrapnel like
The smoke which goes by, and the hours as well, darken the inferno.
Two or three of us risk our faces at the earthen cleft and look out, as
much for the purpose of propping ourselves against the earth as for
seeing. But we see nothing, nothing on the infinite expanse which is
full of rain and dusk, nothing but the clouds which tear themselves and
blend together in the sky, and the clouds which come out of the earth.
Then, in the slanting rain and the limitless gray, we see a man, one
only, who advances with his bayonet forward, like a specter.
We watch this shapeless being, this thing, leaving our lines and going
We only see one--perhaps that is the shadow of another, on his left.
We do not understand, and then we do. It is the end of the attacking
What can his thoughts be--this man alone in the rain as if under a
curse, who goes upright away, forward, when space is changed into a
shrieking machine? By the light of a cascade of flashes I thought I
saw a strange monk-like face. Then I saw more clearly--the face of an
ordinary man, muffled in a comforter.
"It's a chap of the 150th, not the 129th," stammers a voice by my side.
We do not know, except that it is the end of the attacking wave.
When he has disappeared among the eddies, another follows him at a
distance, and then another. They pass by, separate and solitary,
delegates of death, sacrificers and sacrificed. Their great-coats fly
wide; and we, we press close to each other in our corner of night; we
push and hoist ourselves with our rusted muscles, to see that void and
those great scattered soldiers.
We return to the shelter, which is plunged in darkness. The
motor-cyclist's voice obtrudes itself to the point that we think we can
see his black armor. He is describing the "carryings on" at Bordeaux
in September, when the Government was there. He tells of the
festivities, the orgies, the expenditure, and there is almost a tone of
pride in the poor creature's voice as he recalls so many pompous
pageants all at once.
But the uproar outside silences us. Our funk-hole trembles and cracks.
It is the barrage--the barrage which those whom we saw have gone to
fight, hand to hand. A thunderbolt falls just at the opening, it casts
a bright light on all of us, and reveals the last emotion of all, the
belief that all was ended! One man is grimacing like a malefactor
caught in the act; another is opening strange, disappointed eyes;
another is swinging his doleful head, enslaved by the love of sleep,
and another, squatting with his head in his hands, makes a lurid
entanglement. We have seen each other--upright, sitting or
crucified--in the second of broad daylight which came into the bowels
of the earth to resurrect our darkness.
In a moment, when the guns chance to take breath, a voice at the
door-hole calls us:
"We shall be staying there, this time over!" growl the men.
They say this, but they do not know it. We go out, into a chaos of
crashing and flames.
"You'd better fix bayonets," says the sergeant; "come, get 'em on."
We stop while we adjust weapon to weapon and then run to overtake the
We go down; we go up; we mark time; we go forward--like the others. We
are no longer in the trench.
"Get your heads down--kneel!"
We stop and go on our knees. A star-shell pierces us with its
By its light we see, a few steps in front of us, a gaping trench. We
were going to fall into it. It is motionless and empty--no, it is
occupied--yes, it is empty. It is full of a file of slain watchers.
The row of men was no doubt starting out of the earth when the shell
burst in their faces; and by the poised white rays we see that the
blast has staved them in, has taken away the flesh; and above the level
of the monstrous battlefield there is left of them only some fearfully
distorted heads. One is broken and blurred; one emerges like a peak, a
good half of it fallen into nothing. At the end of the row, the
ravages have been less, and only the eyes are smitten. The hollow
orbits in those marble heads look outwards with dried darkness. The
deep and obscure face-wounds have the look of caverns and funnels, of
the shadows in the moon; and stars of mud are clapped on the faces in
the place where eyes once shone.
Our strides have passed that trench. We go more quickly and trouble no
more now about the star-shells, which, among us who know nothing, say,
"I know" and "I will." All is changed, all habits and laws. We march
exposed, upright, through the open fields. Then I suddenly understand
what they have hidden from us up to the last moment--we are attacking!
Yes, the counter-attack has begun without our knowing it. I apply
myself to following the others. May I not be killed like the others;
may I be saved like the others! But if I am killed, so much the worse.
I bear myself forward. My eyes are open but I look at nothing;
confused pictures are printed on my staring eyes. The men around me
form strange surges; shouts cross each other or descend. Upon the
fantastic walls of nights the shots make flicks and flashes. Earth and
sky are crowded with apparitions; and the golden lace of burning stakes
A man is in front of me, a man whose head is wrapped in linen.
He is coming from the opposite direction. He is coming from the other
country! He was seeking me, and I was seeking him. He is quite
near--suddenly he is upon me.
The fear that he is killing me or escaping me--I do not know
which--makes me throw out a desperate effort. Opening my hands and
letting the rifle go, I seize him. My fingers are buried in his
shoulder, in his neck, and I find again, with overflowing exultation,
the eternal form of the human frame. I hold him by the neck with all
my strength, and with more than all my strength, and we quiver with my
He had not the idea of dropping his rifle so quickly as I. He yields
and sinks. I cling to him as if it were salvation. The words in his
throat make a lifeless noise. He brandishes a hand which has only
three fingers--I saw it clearly outlined against the clouds like a
Just as he totters in my arms, resisting death, a thunderous blow
strikes him in the back. His arms drop, and his head also, which is
violently doubled back, but his body is hurled against me like a
projectile, like a superhuman blast.
I have rolled on the ground; I get up, and while I am hastily trying to
find myself again I feel a light blow in the waist. What is it? I
walk forward, and still forward, with my empty hands. I see the others
pass, they go by in front of me. _I_, I advance no more. Suddenly I
fall to the ground.
* * * * * *
I fall on my knees, and then full length. I do what so many others
I am alone on the earth, face to face with the mud, and I can no longer
move. The frightful searching of the shells alights around me. The
hoarse hurricane which does not know me is yet trying to find the place
where I am!
Then the battle goes away, and its departure is heartrending. In spite
of all my efforts, the noise of the firing fades and I am alone; the
wind blows and I am naked.
I shall remain nailed to the ground. By clinging to the earth and
plunging my hands into the depth of the swamp as far as the stones, I
get my neck round a little to see the enormous burden that my back
supports. No--it is only the immensity on me.
My gaze goes crawling. In front of me there are dark things all linked
together, which seem to seize or to embrace one another. I look at
those hills which shut out my horizon and imitate gestures and men.
The multitude downfallen there imprisons me in its ruins. I am walled
in by those who are lying down, as I was walled in before by those who
I am not in pain. I am extraordinarily calm; I am drunk with
tranquillity. Are they dead, all--those? I do not know. The dead are
specters of the living, but the living are specters of the dead.
Something warm is licking my hand. The black mass which overhangs me
is trembling. It is a foundered horse, whose great body is emptying
itself, whose blood is flowing like poor touches of a tongue on to my
hand. I shut my eyes, bemused, and think of a bygone merry-making; and
I remember that I once saw, at the end of a hunt, against the operatic
background of a forest, a child-animal whose life gushed out amid
A voice is speaking beside me.
No doubt the moon has come out--I cannot see as high as the cloud
escarpments, as high as the sky's opening. But that blenching light is
making the corpses shine like tombstones.
I try to find the low voice. There are two bodies, one above the
other. The one underneath must be gigantic--his arms are thrown
backward in a hurricane gesture; his stiff, disheveled hair has crowned
him with a broken crown. His eyes are opaque and glaucous, like two
expectorations, and his stillness is greater than anything one may
dream of. On the other the moon's beams are setting points and lines
a-sparkle and silvering gold. It is he who is talking to me, quietly
and without end. But although his low voice is that of a friend, his
words are incoherent. He is mad--I am abandoned by him! No matter, I
will drag myself up to him to begin with. I look at him again. I
shake myself and blink my eyes, so as to look better. He wears on his
body a uniform accursed! Then with a start, and my hand claw-wise, I
stretch myself towards the glittering prize to secure it. But I cannot
go nearer him; it seems that I no longer have a body. He has looked at
me. He has recognized my uniform, if it is recognizable, and my cap,
if I have it still. Perhaps he has recognized the indelible seal of my
race that I carry printed on my features. Yes, on my face he has
recognized that stamp. Something like hatred has blotted out the face
that I saw dawning so close to me. Our two hearts make a desperate
effort to hurl ourselves on each other. But we can no more strike each
other than we can separate ourselves.
But has he seen me? I cannot say now. He is stirred by fever as by
the wind; he is choked with blood. He writhes, and that shows me the
beaten-down wings of his black cloak.
Close by, some of the wounded have cried out; and farther away one
would say they are singing--beyond the low stakes so twisted and
shriveled that they look as if guillotined.
He does not know what he is saying. He does not even know that he is
speaking, that his thoughts are coming out. The night is torn into
rags by sudden bursts; it fills again at random with clusters of
flashes; and his delirium enters into my head. He murmurs that logic
is a thing of terrible chains, and that all things cling together. He
utters sentences from which distinct words spring, like the scattered
hasty gleams they include in hymns--the Bible, history, majesty, folly.
Then he shouts:--
"There is nothing in the world but the Empire's glory!"
His cry shakes some of the motionless reefs. And I, like an invincible
echo, I cry:--
"There is only the glory of France!"
I do not know if I did really cry out, and if our words did collide in
the night's horror. His head is quite bare. His slender neck and
bird-like profile issue from a fur collar. There are things like owls
shining on his breast. It seems to me as if silence is digging itself
into the brains and lungs of the dark prisoners who imprison us, and
that we are listening to it.
He rambles more loudly now, as if he bore a stifling secret; he calls
up multitudes, and still more multitudes. He is obsessed by
multitudes--"Men, men!" he says. The soil is caressed by some sounds
of sighs, terribly soft, by confidences which are interchanged without
their wishing it. Now and again, the sky collapses into light, and
that flash of instantaneous sunshine changes the shape of the plain
every time, according to its direction. Then does the night take all
back again athwart the rolling echoes.
"What about them, then?" says a sudden jeering voice which falls like a
"Men _must_ not awake," the shining shadow goes on, in dull and hollow
"Don't worry!" says the ironical voice, and at that moment it terrifies
Several bodies arise on their fists into the darkness--I see them by
their heavy groans--and look around them.
The shadow talks to himself and repeats his insane words:--
"Men _must_ not awake."
The voice opposite me, capsizing in laughter and swollen with a rattle,
Yonder, in the hemisphere of night, comets glide, blending their cries
of engines and owls with their flaming entrails. Will the sky ever
recover the huge peace of the sun and the stainless blue?
A little order, a little lucidity are coming back into my mind. Then I
begin to think about myself.
Am I going to die, yes or no? Where can I be wounded? I have managed
to look at my hands, one by one; they are not dead, and I saw nothing
in their dark trickling. It is extraordinary to be made motionless
like this, without knowing where or how. I can do no more on earth
than lift my eyes a little to the edge of the world where I have
Suddenly I am pushed by a movement of the horse on which I am lying. I
see that he has turned his great head aside; he is mournfully eating
grass. I saw this horse but lately in the middle of the regiment--I
know him by the white in his mane--rearing and whinnying like the true
battle-chargers; and now, broken somewhere, he is silent as the truly
unhappy are. Once again, I recall the red deer's little one, mutilated
on its carpet of fresh crimson, and the emotion which I had not on that
bygone day rises into my throat. Animals are innocence incarnate.
This horse is like an enormous child, and if one wanted to point out
life's innocence face to face, one would have to typify, not a little
child, but a horse. My neck gives way, I utter a groan, and my face
gropes upon the ground.
The animal's start has altered my place and shot me on my side, nearer
still to the man who was talking. He has unbent, and is lying on his
back. Thus he offers his face like a mirror to the moon's pallor, and
shows hideously that he is wounded in the neck. I feel that he is
going to die. His words are hardly more now than the rustle of wings.
He has said some unintelligible things about a Spanish painter, and
some motionless portraits in the palaces--the Escurial, Spain, Europe.
Suddenly he is repelling with violence some beings who are in his
"Begone, you dreamers!" he says, louder than the stormy sky where the
flames are red as blood, louder than the falling flashes and the
harrowing wind, louder than all the night which enshrouds us and yet
continues to stone us.
He is seized with a frenzy which bares his soul as naked as his neck:--
"The truth is revolutionary," gasps the nocturnal voice; "get you gone,
you men of truth, you who cast disorder among ignorance, you who strew
words and sow the wind; you contrivers, begone! You bring in the reign
of men! But the multitude hates you and mocks you!"
He laughs, as if he heard the multitude's laughter.
And around us another burst of convulsive laughter grows hugely bigger
in the plain's black heart:--
"Wot's 'e sayin' now, that chap?"
"Let him be. You can see 'e knows more'n 'e says."
"Ah, la, la!"
I am so near to him that I alone gather the rest of his voice, and he
says to me very quietly:--
"I have confidence in the abyss of the people."
And those words stabbed me to the heart and dilated my eyes with
horror, for it seemed to me suddenly, in a flash, that he understood
what he was saying! A picture comes to life before my eyes--that
prince, whom I saw from below, once upon a time, in the nightmare of
life, he who loved the blood of the chase. Not far away a shell turns
the darkness upside down; and it seems as if that explosion also has
considered and shrieked.
Heavy night is implanted everywhere around us. My hands are bathed in
black blood. On my neck and cheeks, rain, which is also black, bleeds.
The funeral procession of silver-fringed clouds goes by once more, and
again a ray of moonlight besilvers the swamp that has sunk us soldiers;
it lays winding-sheets on the prone.
All at once a swelling lamentation comes to life, one knows not where,
and glides over the plain:--
"Now then! _They're_ not coming to look for us! What about it?"
And I see a stirring and movement, very gentle, as at the bottom of the
Amid the glut of noises, upon that still tepid and unsubmissive expanse
where cold death sits brooding, that sharp profile has fallen back.
The cloak is quivering. The great and sumptuous bird of prey is in the
act of taking wing.
The horse has not stopped bleeding. Its blood falls on me drop by drop
with the regularity of a clock,--as though all the blood that is
filtering through the strata of the field and all the punishment of the
wounded came to a head in him and through him. Ah, it seems that truth
goes farther in all directions than one thought! We bend over the
wrong that animals suffer, for them we wholly understand.
Men, men! Everywhere the plain has a mangled outline. Below that
horizon, sometimes blue-black and sometimes red-black, the plain is
I have not changed my place. I open my eyes. Have I been sleeping? I
do not know. There is tranquil light now. It is evening or morning.
My arms alone can tremble. I am enrooted like a distorted bush. My
wound? It is that which glues me to the ground.
Back to Full Books