Part 4 out of 6
I succeed in raising my face, and the wet waves of space assail my
eyes. Patiently I pick out of the earthy pallor which blends all
things some foggy shoulders, some cloudy angles of elbows, some
hand-like lacerations. I discern in the still circle which encloses
me--faces lying on the ground and dirty as feet, faces held out to the
rain like vases, and holding stagnant tears.
Quite near, one face is looking sadly at me, as it lolls to one side.
It is coming out of the bottom of the heap, as a wild animal might.
Its hair falls back like nails. The nose is a triangular hole and a
little of the whiteness of human marble dots it. There are no lips
left, and the two rows of teeth show up like lettering. The cheeks are
sprinkled with moldy traces of beard. This body is only mud and
stones. This face, in front of my own, is only a consummate mirror.
Water-blackened overcoats cover and clothe the whole earth around me.
I gaze, and gaze----
I am frozen by a mass which supports me. My elbow sinks into it. It
is the horse's belly; its rigid leg obliquely bars the narrow circle
from which my eyes cannot escape. Ah, it is dead! It seems to me that
my breast is empty, yet still there is an echo in my heart. What I am
looking for is life.
The distant sky is resonant, and each dull shot comes and pushes my
shoulder. Nearer, some shells are thundering heavily. Though I cannot
see them, I see the tawny reflection that their flame spreads abroad,
and the sudden darkness as well that is hurled by their clouds of
excretion. Other shadows go and come on the ground about me; and then
I hear in the air the plunge of beating wings, and cries so fierce that
I feel them ransack my head.
* * * * * *
Death is not yet dead everywhere. Some points and surfaces still
resist and budge and cry out, doubtless because it is dawn; and once
the wind swept away a muffled bugle-call. There are some who still
burn with the invisible fire of fever, in spite of the frozen periods
they have crossed. But the cold is working into them. The immobility
of lifeless things is passing into them, and the wind empties itself as
it goes by.
Voices are worn away; looks are soldered to their eyes. Wounds are
staunched; they have finished. Only the earth and the stones bleed.
And just then I saw, under the trickling morning, some half-open but
still tepid dead that steamed, as if they were the blackening
rubbish-heap of a village. I watch that hovering dead breath of the
dead. The crows are eddying round the naked flesh with their flapping
banners and their war-cries. I see one which has found some shining
rubies on the black vein-stone of a foot; and one which noisily draws
near to a mouth, as if called by it. Sometimes a dead man makes a
movement, so that he will fall lower down. But they will have no more
burial than if they were the last men of all.
* * * * * *
There is one upright presence which I catch a glimpse of, so near, so
near; and I want to see it. In making the effort with my elbow on the
horse's ballooned body I succeed in altering the direction of my head,
and of the corridor of my gaze. Then all at once I discover a quite
new population of bronze men in rotten clothes; and especially, erect
on bended knees, a gray overcoat, lacquered with blood and pierced by a
great hole, round which is collected a bunch of heavy crimson flowers.
Slowly I lift the burden of my eyes to explore that hole. Amid the
shattered flesh, with its changing colors and a smell so strong that it
puts a loathsome taste in my mouth, at the bottom of the cage where
some crossed bones are black and rusted as iron bars, I can see
something, something isolated, dark and round. I see that it is a
Placed there, too--I do not know how, for I cannot see the body's full
height--the arm, and the hand. The hand has only three fingers--a
fork---- Ah, I recognize that heart! It is his whom I killed.
Prostrate in the mud before him, because of my defeat and my
resemblance, I cried out to the man's profundity, to the superhuman
man. Then my eyes fell; and I saw worms moving on the edges of that
infinite wound. I was quite close to their stirring. They are whitish
worms, and their tails are pointed like stings; they curve and flatten
out, sometimes in the shape of an "i," and sometimes of a "u." The
perfection of immobility is left behind. The human material is
crumbled into the earth for another end.
I hated that man, when he had his shape and his warmth. We were
foreigners, and made to destroy ourselves. Yet it seems to me, in face
of that bluish heart, still attached to its red cords, that I
understand the value of life. It is understood by force, like a
caress. I think I can see how many seasons and memories and beings
there had to be, yonder, to make up that life,--while I remain before
him, on a point of the plain, like a night watcher. I hear the voice
that his flesh breathed while yet he lived a little, when my ferocious
hands fumbled in him for the skeleton we all have. He fills the whole
place. He is too many things at once. How can there be worlds in the
world? That established notion would destroy all.
This perfume of a tuberose is the breath of corruption. On the ground,
I see crows near me, like hens.
Myself! I think of myself, of all that I am. Myself, my home, my
hours; the past, and the future,--it was going to be like the past!
And at that moment I feel, weeping within me and dragging itself from
some little bygone trifle, a new and tragical sorrow in dying, a hunger
to be warm once more in the rain and the cold: to enclose myself in
myself in spite of space, to hold myself back, to live. I called for
help, and then lay panting, watching the distance in desperate
expectation. "Stretcher-bearers!" I cry. I do not hear myself; but if
only the others heard me!
Now that I have made that effort, I can do no more, and my head lies
there at the entrance to that world-great wound.
There is nothing now.
Yet there is that man. He was laid out like one dead. But suddenly,
through his shut eyes, he smiled. He, no doubt, will come back here on
earth, and something within me thanks him for his miracle.
And there was that one, too, whom I saw die. He raised his hand, which
was drowning. Hidden in the depths of the others, it was only by that
hand that he lived, and called, and saw. On one finger shone a
wedding-ring, and it told me a sort of story. When his hand ceased to
tremble, and became a dead plant with that golden flower, I felt the
beginning of a farewell rise in me like a sob. But there are too many
of them for one to mourn them all. How many of them are there on all
this plain? How many, how many of them are there in all this moment?
Our heart is only made for one heart at a time. It wears us out to
look at all. One may say, "There are the others," but it is only a
saying. "You shall not know; you shall _not_ know."
Barrenness and cold have descended on all the body of the earth.
Nothing moves any more, except the wind, that is charged with cold
water, and the shells, that are surrounded by infinity, and the crows,
and the thought that rolls immured in my head.
* * * * * *
They are motionless at last, they who forever marched, they to whom
space was so great! I see their poor hands, their poor legs, their
poor backs, resting on the earth. They are tranquil at last. The
shells which bespattered them are ravaging another world. They are in
the peace eternal.
All is accomplished, all has terminated there. It is there, in that
circle narrow as a well that the descent into the raging heart of hell
was halted, the descent into slow tortures, into unrelenting fatigue,
into the flashing tempest. We came here because they told us to come
here. We have done what they told us to do. I think of the simplicity
of our reply on the Day of Judgment.
The gunfire continues. Always, always, the shells come, and all those
bullets that are miles in length. Hidden behind the horizons, living
men unite with machines and fall furiously on space. They do not see
their shots. They do not know what they are doing. "You shall not
know; you shall _not_ know."
But since the cannonade is returning, they will be fighting here again.
All these battles spring from themselves and necessitate each other to
infinity! One single battle is not enough, it is not complete, there
is no satisfaction. Nothing is finished, nothing is ever finished.
Ah, it is only men who die! No one understands the greatness of
things, and I know well that I do not understand all the horror in
which I am.
* * * * * *
Here is evening, the time when the firing is lighted up. The horizons
of the dark day, of the dark evening, and of the illuminated night
revolve around my remains as round a pivot.
I am like those who are going to sleep, like the children. I am
growing fainter and more soothed; I close my eyes; I dream of my home.
Yonder, no doubt, they are joining forces to make the evenings
tolerable. Marie is there, and some other women, getting dinner ready;
the house becomes a savor of cooking. I hear Marie speaking; standing
at first, then seated at the table. I hear the sound of the table
things which she moves on the cloth as she takes her place. Then,
because some one is putting a light to the lamp, having lifted its
chimney, Marie gets up to go and close the shutters. She opens the
window. She leans forward and outspreads her arms; but for a moment
she stays immersed in the naked night. She shivers, and I, too.
Dawning in the darkness, she looks afar, as I am doing. Our eyes have
met. It is true, for this night is hers as much as mine, the same
night, and distance is not anything palpable or real; distance is
nothing. It is true, this great close contact.
Where am I? Where is Marie? What is she, even? I do not know, I do
not know. I do not know where the wound in my flesh is, and how can I
know the wound in my heart?
* * * * * *
The clouds are crowning themselves with sheaves of stars. It is an
aviary of fire, a hell of silver and gold. Planetary cataclysms send
immense walls of light falling around me. Phantasmal palaces of
shrieking lightning, with arches of star-shells, appear and vanish amid
forests of ghastly gleams.
While the bombardment is patching the sky with continents of flame, it
is drawing still nearer. Volleys of flashes are plunging in here and
there and devouring the other lights. The supernatural army is
arriving! All the highways of space are crowded. Nearer still, a
shell bursts with all its might and glows; and among us all whom chance
defends goes frightfully in quest of flesh. Shells are following each
other into that cavity there. Again I see, among the things of earth,
a resurrected man, and he is dragging himself towards that hole! He is
wrapped in white, and the under-side of his body, which rubs the
ground, is black. Hooking the ground with his stiffened arms he
crawls, long and flat as a boat. He still hears the cry "Forward!" He
is finding his way to the hole; he does not know, and he is trailing
exactly toward its monstrous ambush. The shell will succeed! At any
second now the frenzied fangs of space will strike his side and go in
as into a fruit. I have not the strength to shout to him to fly
elsewhere with all his slowness; I can only open my mouth and become a
sort of prayer in face of the man's divinity. And yet, he is the
survivor; and along with the sleeper, to whom a dream was whispering
just now, he is the only one left to me.
A hiss--the final blow reaches him; and in a flash I see the piebald
maggot crushing under the weight of the sibilance and turning wild eyes
No! It is not he! A blow of light--of all light--fills my eyes. I am
lifted up, I am brandished by an unknown blade in the middle of a globe
of extraordinary light. The shell----I! And I am falling, I fall
continually, fantastically. I fall out of this world; and in that
fractured flash I saw myself again--I thought of my bowels and my heart
hurled to the winds--and I heard voices saying again and again--far,
far away--"Simon Paulin died at the age of thirty-six."
DE PROFUNDIS CLAMAVI
I am dead. I fall, I roll like a broken bird into bewilderments of
light, into canyons of darkness. Vertigo presses on my entrails,
strangles me, plunges into me. I drop sheer into the void, and my gaze
falls faster than I.
Through the wanton breath of the depths that assail me I see, far
below, the seashore dawning. The ghostly strand that I glimpse while I
cling to my own body is bare, endless, rain-drowned, and supernaturally
mournful. Through the long, heavy and concentric mists that the clouds
make, my eyes go searching. On the shore I see a being who wanders
alone, veiled to the feet. It is a woman. Ah, I am one with that
woman! She is weeping. Her tears are dropping on the sand where the
waves are breaking! While I am reeling to infinity, I hold out my two
heavy arms to her. She fades away as I look.
For a long time there is nothing, nothing but invisible time, and the
immense futility of rain on the sea.
* * * * * *
What are these flashes of light? There are gleams of flame in my eyes;
a surfeit of light is cast over me. I can no longer cling to
anything--fire and water!
In the beginning, there is battle between fire and water--the world
revolving headlong in the hooked claws of its flames, and the expanses
of water which it drives back in clouds. At last the water obscures
the whirling spirals of the furnace and takes their place. Under the
roof of dense darkness, timbered with flashes, there are triumphant
downpours which last a hundred thousand years. Through centuries of
centuries, fire and water face each other; the fire, upright, buoyant
and leaping; the water flat, creeping, gliding, widening its lines and
its surface. When they touch, is it the water which hisses and roars,
or is it the fire? And one sees the reigning calm of a radiant plain,
a plain of incalculable greatness. The round meteor congeals into
shapes, and continental islands are sculptured by the water's boundless
I am no longer alone and abandoned on the former battlefield of the
elements. Near this rock, something like another is taking shape; it
stands straight as a flame, and moves. This sketch-model thinks. It
reflects the wide expanse, the past and the future; and at night, on
its hill, it is the pedestal of the stars. The animal kingdom dawns in
that upright thing, the poor upright thing with a face and a cry, which
hides an internal world and in which a heart obscurely beats. A lone
being, a heart! But the heart, in the embryo of the first men, beats
only for fear. He whose face has appeared above the earth, and who
carries his soul in chaos, discerns afar shapes like his own, he sees
_the other_--the terrifying outline which spies and roams and turns
again, with the snare of his head. Man pursues man to kill him and
woman to wound her. He bites that he may eat, he strikes down that he
may clasp,--furtively, in gloomy hollows and hiding-places or in the
depths of night's bedchamber, dark love is writhing,--he lives solely
that he may protect, in some disputed cave, his eyes, his breast, his
belly, and the caressing brands of his hearth.
* * * * * *
There is a great calm in my environs.
From place to place, men have gathered together. There are companies
and droves of men, with watchmen, in the vapors of dawn; and in the
middle one makes out the children and the women, crowding together like
fallow deer. To eastward I see, in the silence of a great fresco, the
diverging beams of morning gleaming, through the intervening and somber
statues of two hunters, whose long hair is tangled like briars, and who
hold each other's hand, upright on the mountain.
Men have gone towards each other because of that ray of light which
each of them contains; and light resembles light. It reveals that the
isolated man, too free in the open expanses, is doomed to adversity as
if he were a captive, in spite of appearances; and that men must come
together that they may be stronger, that they may be more peaceful, and
even that they may be able to live.
For men are made to live their life in its depth, and also in all its
length. Stronger than the elements and keener than all terrors are the
hunger to last long, the passion to possess one's days to the very end
and to make the best of them. It is not only a right; it is a virtue.
Contact dissolves fear and dwindles danger. The wild beast attacks the
solitary man, but shrinks from the unison of men together. Around the
home-fire, that lowly fawning deity, it means the multiplication of the
warmth and even of the poor riches of its halo. Among the ambushes of
broad daylight, it means the better distribution of the different forms
of labor; among the ambushes of night, it stands for that of tender and
identical sleep. All lone, lost words blend in an anthem whose murmur
rises in the valley from the busy animation of morning and evening.
The law which regulates the common good is called the moral law.
Nowhere nor ever has morality any other purpose than that; and if only
one man lived on earth, morality would not exist. It prunes the
cluster of the individual's appetites according to the desires of the
others. It emanates from all and from each at the same time, at one
and the same time from justice and from personal interest. It is
inflexible and natural, as much so as the law which, before our eyes,
fits the lights and shadows so perfectly together. It is so simple
that it speaks to each one and tells him what it is. The moral law has
not proceeded from any ideal; it is the ideal which has wholly
proceeded from the moral law.
* * * * * *
The primeval cataclysm has begun again upon the earth. My
vision--beautiful as a fair dream which shows men's composed reliance
on each other in the sunrise--collapses in mad nightmare.
But this flashing devastation is not incoherent, as at the time of the
conflict of the first elements and the groping of dead things. For its
crevasses and flowing fires show a symmetry which is not Nature's; it
reveals discipline let loose, and the frenzy of wisdom. It is made up
of thought, of will, of suffering. Multitudes of scattered men, full
of an infinity of blood, confront each other like floods. A vision
comes and pounces on me, shaking the soil on which I am doubtless
laid--the marching flood. It approaches the ditch from all sides and
is poured into it. The fire hisses and roars in that army as in water;
it is extinguished in human fountains!
* * * * * *
It seems to me that I am struggling against what I see, while lying and
clinging somewhere; and once I even heard supernatural admonitions in
my ear, _as if I were somewhere else_.
I am looking for men--for the rescue of speech, of a word. How many of
them I heard, once upon a time! I want one only, now. I am in the
regions where men are earthed up,--a crushed plain under a dizzy sky,
which goes by peopled with other stars than those of heaven, and tense
with other clouds, and continually lighted from flash to flash by a
daylight which is not day.
Nearer, one makes out the human shape of great drifts and hilly fields,
many-colored and vaguely floral--the corpse of a section or of a
company. Nearer still, I perceive at my feet the ugliness of skulls.
Yes, I have seen them--wounds as big as men! In this new cess-pool,
which fire dyes red by night and the multitude dyes red by day, crows
are staggering, drunk.
Yonder, that is the listening-post, keeping watch over the cycles of
time. Five or six captive sentinels are buried there in that cistern's
dark, their faces grimacing through the vent-hole, their skull-caps
barred with red as with gleams from hell, their mien desperate and
When I ask them why they are fighting, they say:--
"To save my country."
I am wandering on the other side of the immense fields where the yellow
puddles are strewn with black ones (for blood soils even mud), and with
thickets of steel, and with trees which are no more than the shadows of
themselves; I hear the skeleton of my jaws shiver and chatter. In the
middle of the flayed and yawning cemetery of living and dead, moonlike
in the night, there is a wide extent of leveled ruins. It was not a
village that once was there, it was a hillside whose pale bones are
like those of a village. The other people--mine--have scooped fragile
holes, and traced disastrous paths with their hands and with their
feet. Their faces are strained forward, their eyes search, they sniff
"Why are you fighting?"
"To save my country."
The two answers fall as alike in the distance as two notes of a
passing-bell, as alike as the voice of the guns.
* * * * * *
And I--I am seeking; it is a fever, a longing, a madness. I struggle,
I would fain tear myself from the soil and take wing to the truth. I
am seeking the difference between those people who are killing
themselves, and I can only find their resemblance. I cannot escape
from this resemblance of men. It terrifies me, and I try to cry out,
and there come from me strange and chaotic sounds which echo into the
unknown, which I almost hear!
They do not wear similar clothes on the targets of their bodies, and
they speak different tongues; but from the bottom of that which is
human within them, identically the same simplicities come forth. They
have the same sorrows and the same angers, around the same causes.
They are alike as their wounds are alike and will be alike. Their
sayings are as similar as the cries that pain wrings from them, as
alike as the awful silence that soon will breathe from their murdered
lips. They only fight because they are face to face. Against each
other, they are pursuing a common end. Dimly, they kill themselves
because they are alike.
And by day and by night, these two halves of war continue to lie in
wait for each other afar, to dig their graves at their feet, and I am
helpless. They are separated by frontiers of gulfs, which bristle with
weapons and explosive snares, impassable to life. They are separated
by all that can separate, by dead men and still by dead men, and ever
thrown back, each into its gasping islands, by black rivers and
consecrated fires, by heroism and hatred.
And misery is endlessly begotten of the miserable.
There is no real reason for it all; there is no reason. I do not wish
it. I groan, I fall back.
Then the question, worn, but stubborn and violent as a solid thing,
seizes upon me again. Why? Why? I am like the weeping wind. I seek,
I defend myself, amid the infinite despair of my mind and heart. I
listen. I remember all.
* * * * * *
A booming sound vibrates and increases, like the fitful wing-beats of
some dim, tumultuous archangel, above the heads of the masses that move
in countless dungeons, or wheel round to furnish the front of the lines
with new flesh:--
"Forward! It has to be! You shall _not_ know!"
I remember. I have seen much of it, and I see it clearly. These
multitudes who are set in motion and let loose,--their brains and their
souls and their wills are not in them, but outside them!
* * * * * *
Other people, far away, think and wish for them. Other people wield
their hands and push them and pull them, others, who hold all their
controlling threads; in the distance, the people in the center of the
infernal orbits, in the capital cities, in the palaces. There is a
higher law; up above men there is a machine which is stronger than men.
The multitude is at the same time power and impotence--and I remember,
and I know well that I have seen it with my own eyes. War is the
multitude--and it is not! Why did I not know it since I have seen it?
Soldier of the wide world, you, the man taken haphazard from among men,
remember--there was not a moment when you were yourself. Never did you
cease to be bowed under the harsh and answerless command, "It has to
be, it has to be." In times of peace encircled in the law of incessant
labor, in the mechanical mill or the commercial mill, slave of the
tool, of the pen, of your talent, or of some other thing, you were
tracked without respite from morning to evening by the daily task which
allowed you only just to overcome life, and to rest only in dreams.
When the war comes that you never wanted--whatever your country and
your name--the terrible fate which grips you is sharply unmasked,
offensive and complicated. The wind of condemnation has arisen.
They requisition your body. They lay hold on you with measures of
menace which are like legal arrest, from which nothing that is poor and
needy can escape. They imprison you in barracks. They strip you naked
as a worm, and dress you again in a uniform which obliterates you; they
mark your neck with a number. The uniform even enters into your flesh,
for you are shaped and cut out by the stamping-machine of exercises.
Brightly clad strangers spring up about you, and encircle you. You
recognize them--they are not strangers. It is a carnival, then,--but a
fierce and final carnival, for these are your new masters, they the
absolute, proclaiming on their fists and heads their gilded authority.
Such of them as are near to you are themselves only the servants of
others, who wear a greater power painted on their clothes. It is a
life of misery, humiliation and diminution into which you fall from day
to day, badly fed and badly treated, assailed throughout your body,
spurred on by your warders' orders. At every moment you are thrown
violently back into your littleness, you are punished for the least
action which comes out of it, or slain by the order of your masters.
It is forbidden you to speak when you would unite yourself with the
brother who is touching you. The silence of steel reigns around you.
Your thoughts must be only profound endurance. Discipline is
indispensable for the multitude to be melted into a single army; and in
spite of the vague kinship which is sometimes set up between you and
your nearest chief, the machine-like order paralyzes you first, so that
your body may be the better made to move in accordance with the rhythm
of the rank and the regiment--into which, nullifying all that is
yourself, you pass already as a sort of dead man.
"They gather us together but they separate us!" cries a voice from the
If there are some who escape through the meshes, it means that such
"slackers" are also influential. They are uncommon, in spite of
appearances, as the influential are. You, the isolated man, the
ordinary man, the lowly thousand-millionth of humanity, you evade
nothing, and you march right to the end of all that happens, or to the
end of yourself.
You will be crushed. Either you will go into the charnel house,
destroyed by those who are similar to you, since war is only made by
you, or you will return to your point in the world, diminished or
diseased, retaining only existence without health or joy, a home-exile
after absences too long, impoverished forever by the time you have
squandered. Even if selected by the miracle of chance, if unscathed in
the hour of victory, you also, _you_ will be vanquished. When you
return into the insatiable machine of the work-hours, among your own
people--whose misery the profiteers have meanwhile sucked dry with
their passion for gain--the task will be harder than before, because of
the war that must be paid for, with all its incalculable consequences.
You who peopled the peace-time prisons of your towns and barns, begone
to people the immobility of the battlefields--and if you survive, pay
up! Pay for a glory which is not yours, or for ruins that others have
made with your hands.
Suddenly, in front of me and a few paces from my couch--as if I were in
a bed, in a bedroom, and had all at once woke up--an uncouth shape
rises awry. Even in the darkness I see that it is mangled. I see
about its face something abnormal which dimly shines; and I can see,
too, by his staggering steps, sunk in the black soil, that his shoes
are empty. He cannot speak, but he brings forward the thin arm from
which rags hang down and drip; and his imperfect hand, as torturing to
the mind as discordant chords, points to the place of his heart. I see
that heart, buried in the darkness of the flesh, in the black blood of
the living--for only shed blood is red. I see him profoundly, with my
heart. If he said anything he would say the words that I still hear
falling, drop by drop, as I heard them yonder--"Nothing can be done,
nothing." I try to move, to rid myself of him. But I cannot, I am
pinioned in a sort of nightmare; and if he had not himself faded away I
should have stayed there forever, dazzled in presence of his darkness.
This man said nothing. He appeared like the dead thing he is. He has
departed. Perhaps he has ceased to be, perhaps he has entered into
death, which is not more mysterious to him than life, which he is
leaving--and I have fallen back into myself.
* * * * * *
He has returned, to show his face to me. Ah, now there is a bandage
round his head, and so I recognize him by his crown of filth! I begin
again that moment when I clasped him against me to crush him; when I
propped him against the shell, when my arms felt his bones cracking
round his heart! It was he!--It was I! He says nothing, from the
eternal abysses in which he remains my brother in silence and
ignorance. The remorseful cry which tears my throat outstrips me, and
would find some one else.
That destiny which killed him by means of me--has it no human faces?
"Kings!" said Termite.
"The big people!" said the man whom they had snared, the close-cropped
German prisoner, the man with the convict's hexagonal face, he who was
greenish from top to toe.
But these kings and majesties and superhuman men who are illuminated by
fantastic names and never make mistakes--were they not done away with
long since? One does not know.
One does not see those who rule. One only sees what they wish, and
what they do with the others.
Why have They always command? One does not know. The multitudes have
not given themselves to Them. They have taken them and They keep them.
Their power is supernatural. It is, because it was. This is its
explanation and formula and breath--"It has to be."
As they have laid hold of arms, so they lay hold of heads, and make a
"They tell you," cried he, whom none of the lowly soldiers would deign
to listen to; "they say to you, 'This is what you must have in your
minds and hearts.'"
An inexorable religion has fallen from them upon us all, upholding what
exists, preserving what is.
Suddenly I hear beside me, as if I were in a file of the executed, a
stammering death-agony; and I think I see him who struggled like a
stricken vulture, on the earth that was bloated with dead. And his
words enter my heart more distinctly than when they were still alive;
and they wound me like blows at once of darkness and of light.
"Men _must_ not open their eyes!"
"Faith comes at will, like the rest!" said Adjutant Marcassin, as he
fluttered in his red trousers about the ranks, like a blood-stained
priest of the God of War.
He was right! He had grasped the chains of bondage when he hurled that
true cry against the truth. Every man is something of account, but
ignorance isolates and resignation scatters. Every poor man carries
within him centuries of indifference and servility. He is a
defenseless prey for hatred and dazzlement.
The man of the people whom I am looking for, while I writhe through
confusion as through mud, the worker who measures his strength against
toil which is greater than he, and who never escapes from hardships,
the serf of these days--I see him as if he were here. He is coming out
of his shop at the bottom of the court. He wears a square cap. One
makes out the shining dust of old age strewn in his stubbly beard. He
chews and smokes his foul and noisy pipe. He nods his head; with a
fine and sterling smile he says, "There's always been war, so there'll
And all around him people nod their heads and think the same, in the
poor lonely well of their heart. They hold the conviction anchored to
the bottom of their brains that things can never change any more. They
are like posts and paving stones, distinct but cemented together; they
believe that the life of the world is a sort of great stone monument,
and they obey, obscurely and indistinctly, everything which commands;
and they do not look afar, in spite of the little children. And I
remember the readiness there was to yield themselves, body and soul, to
serried resignation. Then, too, there is alcohol which murders; wine,
One does not see the kings; one only sees the reflection of them on the
There are bemusings and spells of fascination, of which we are the
object. I think, fascinated.
My lips religiously recite a passage in a book which a young man has
just read to me, while I, quite a child, lean drowsily on the kitchen
table--"Roland is not dead. Through long centuries our splendid
ancestor, the warrior of warriors, has been seen riding over the
mountains and hills across the France of Charlemagne and Hugh the
Great. At all times of great national disaster he has risen before the
people's eyes, like an omen of victory and glory, with his lustrous
helmet and his sword. He has appeared and has halted like a
soldier-archangel over the flaming horizon of conflagrations or the
dark mounds of battle and pestilence, leaning over his horse's winged
mane, fantastically swaying as though the earth itself were inebriate
with pride. Everywhere he has been seen, reviving the ideals and the
prowess of the Past. He was seen in Austria, at the time of the
eternal quarrel between Pope and Emperor; he was seen above the strange
stirrings of Scythians and Arabs, and the glowing civilizations which
arose and fell like waves around the Mediterranean. Great Roland can
And after he had read these lines of a legend, the young man made me
admire them, and looked at me.
He whom I thus see again, as precisely as one sees a portrait, just as
he was that evening so wonderfully far away, was my father. And I
remember how devoutly I believed--from that day now buried among them
all--in the beauty of those things, because my father had told me they
In the low room of the old house, under the green and watery gleam of
the diamond panes in the lancet window, the ancient citizen cries,
"There are people mad enough to believe that a day will come when
Brittany will no longer be at war with Maine!" He appears in the
vortex of the past, and so saying, sinks back in it. And an engraving,
once and for a long time heeded, again takes life: Standing on the
wooden boom of the ancient port, his scarred doublet rusted by wind and
brine, his old back bellied like a sail, the pirate is shaking his fist
at the frigate that passes in the distance; and leaning over the tangle
of tarred beams, as he used to on the nettings of his corsair ship, he
predicts his race's eternal hatred for the English.
"Russia a republic!" We raise our arms to heaven. "Germany a
republic!" We raise our arms to heaven.
And the great voices, the poets, the singers--what have the great
voices said? They have sung the praises of the victor's laurels
without knowing what they are. You, old Homer, bard of the lisping
tribes of the coasts, with your serene and venerable face sculptured in
the likeness of your great childlike genius, with your three times
millennial lyre and your empty eyes--you who led us to Poetry! And
you, herd of poets enslaved, who did not understand, who lived before
you could understand, in an age when great men were only the domestics
of great lords--and you, too, servants of the resounding and opulent
pride of to-day, eloquent flatterers and magnificent dunces, you
unwitting enemies of mankind! You have all sung the laurel wreath
without knowing what it is.
There are dazzlings, and solemnities and ceremonies, to amuse and
excite the common people, to dim their sight with bright colors, with
the glitter of the badges and stars that are crumbs of royalty, to
inflame them with the jingle of bayonets and medals, with trumpets and
trombones and the big drum, and to inspire the demon of war in the
excitable feelings of women and the inflammable credulity of the young.
I see the triumphal arches, the military displays in the vast
amphitheaters of public places, and the march past of those who go to
die, who walk in step to hell by reason of their strength and youth,
and the hurrahs for war, and the real pride which the lowly feel in
bending the knee before their masters and saying, as their cavalcade
tops the hill, "It's fine! They might be galloping over us!" "It's
magnificent, how warlike we are!" says the woman, always dazzled, as
she convulsively squeezes the arm of him who is going away.
And another kind of excitement takes form and seizes me by the throat
in the pestilential pits of hell--"They're on fire, they're on fire!"
stammers that soldier, breathless as his empty rifle, as the flood of
the exalted German divisions advances, linked elbow to elbow under a
godlike halo of ether, to drown the deeps with their single lives.
Ah, the intemperate shapes and unities that float in morsels above the
peopled precipices! When two overlords, jewel-set with glittering
General Staffs, proclaim at the same time on either side of their
throbbing mobilized frontiers, "We will save our country!" there is one
immensity deceived and two victimized. There are two deceived
There is nothing else. That these cries can be uttered together in the
face of heaven, in the face of truth, proves at a stroke the
monstrosity of the laws which rule us, and the madness of the gods.
I turn on a bed of pain to escape from the horrible vision of
masquerade, from the fantastic absurdity into which all these things
are brought back; and my fever seeks again.
Those bright spells which blind, and the darkness which also blinds.
Falsehood rules with those who rule, effacing Resemblance everywhere,
and everywhere creating Difference.
Nowhere can one turn aside from falsehood. Where indeed is there none?
The linked-up lies, the invisible chain, the Chain!
Murmurs and shouts alike cross in confusion. Here and yonder, to right
and to left, they make pretense. Truth never reaches as far as men.
News filters through, false or atrophied. On _this_ side--all is
beautiful and disinterested; yonder--the same things are infamous.
"French militarism is not the same thing as Prussian militarism, since
one's French and the other's Prussian." The newspapers, the somber
host of the great prevailing newspapers, fall upon the minds of men and
wrap them up. The daily siftings link them together and chain them up,
and forbid them to look ahead. And the impecunious papers show blanks
in the places where the truth was too clearly written. At the end of a
war, the last things to be known by the children of the slain and by
the mutilated and worn-out survivors will be all the war-aims of its
Suddenly they reveal to the people an accomplished fact which has been
worked out in the _terra incognita_ of courts, and they say, "Now that
it is too late, only one resource is left you--Kill that you be not
They brandish the superficial incident which in the last hour has
caused the armaments and the heaped-up resentment and intrigues to
overflow in war; and they say, "That is the only cause of the war." It
is not true; the only cause of war is the slavery of those whose flesh
They say to the people, "When once victory is gained, agreeably to your
masters, all tyranny will have disappeared as if by magic, and there
will be peace on earth." It is not true. There will be no peace on
earth until the reign of men is come.
But will it ever come? Will it have time to come, while hollow-eyed
humanity makes such haste to die? For all this advertisement of war,
radiant in the sunshine, all these temporary and mendacious reasons,
stupidly or skillfully curtailed, of which not one reaches the lofty
elevation of the common welfare--all these insufficient pretexts
suffice in sum to make the artless man bow in bestial ignorance, to
adorn him with iron and forge him at will.
"It is not on Reason," cried the specter of the battlefield, whose
torturing spirit was breaking away from his still gilded body; "it is
not on Reason that the Bible of History stands. Else are the law of
majesties and the ancient quarrel of the flags essentially supernatural
and intangible, or the old world is built on principles of insanity."
He touches me with his strong hand and I try to shake myself, and I
stumble curiously, although lying down. A clamor booms in my temples
and then thunders like the guns in my ears; it overflows me,--I drown
in that cry----
"It must be! It has to be! You shall _not_ know!" That is the
war-cry, that is the cry of war.
* * * * * *
War will come again after this one. It will come again as long as it
can be determined by people other than those who fight. The same
causes will produce the same effects, and the living will have to give
up all hope.
We cannot say out of what historical conjunctions the final tempests
will issue, nor by what fancy names the interchangeable ideals imposed
on men will be known in that moment. But the cause--that will perhaps
everywhere be fear of the nations' real freedom. What we do know is
that the tempests will come.
Armaments will increase every year amid dizzy enthusiasm. The
relentless torture of precision seizes me. We do three years of
military training; our children will do five, they will do ten. We pay
two thousand million francs a year in preparation for war; we shall pay
twenty, we shall pay fifty thousand millions. All that we have will be
taken; it will be robbery, insolvency, bankruptcy. War kills wealth as
it does men; it goes away in ruins and smoke, and one cannot fabricate
gold any more than soldiers. We no longer know how to count; we no
longer know anything. A billion--a million millions--the word appears
to me printed on the emptiness of things. It sprang yesterday out of
war, and I shrink in dismay from the new, incomprehensible word.
There will be nothing else on the earth but preparation for war. All
living forces will be absorbed by it; it will monopolize all discovery,
all science, all imagination. Supremacy in the air alone, the regular
levies for the control of space, will suffice to squander a nation's
fortune. For aerial navigation, at its birth in the middle of envious
circles, has become a rich prize which everybody desires, a prey they
have immeasurably torn in pieces.
Other expenditure will dry up before that on destruction does, and
other longings as well, and all the reasons for living. Such will be
the sense of humanity's last age.
* * * * * *
The battlefields were prepared long ago. They cover entire provinces
with one black city, with a great metallic reservoir of factories,
where iron floors and furnaces tremble, bordered by a land of forests
whose trees are steel, and of wells where sleeps the sharp blackness of
snares; a country navigated by frantic groups of railway trains in
parallel formation, and heavy as attacking columns. At whatever point
you may be on the plain, even if you turn away, even if you take
flight, the bright tentacles of the rails diverge and shine, and cloudy
sheaves of wires rise into the air. Upon that territory of execution
there rises and falls and writhes machinery so complex that it has not
even names, so vast that it has not even shape; for aloft--above the
booming whirlwinds which are linked from east to west in the glow of
molten metal whose flashes are great as those of lighthouses, or in the
pallor of scattered electric constellations--hardly can one make out
the artificial outline of a mountain range, clapped upon space.
This immense city of immense low buildings, rectangular and dark, is
not a city. They are assaulting tanks, which a feeble internal gesture
sets in motion, ready for the rolling rush of their gigantic knee-caps.
These endless cannon, thrust into pits which search into the fiery
entrails of the earth, and stand there upright, hardly leaning so much
as Pisa's tower; and these slanting tubes, long as factory chimneys, so
long that perspective distorts their lines and sometimes splays them
like the trumpets of Apocalypse--these are not cannon; they are
machine-guns, fed by continuous ribbons of trains which scoop out in
entire regions--and upon a country, if need be--mountains of
In war, which was once like the open country and is now wholly like
towns--and even like one immense building--one hardly sees the men. On
the round-ways and the casemates, the footbridges and the movable
platforms, among the labyrinth of concrete caves, above the regiment
echelonned downwards in the gulf and enormously upright,--one sees a
haggard herd of wan and stooping men, men black and trickling, men
issuing from the peaty turf of night, men who came there to save their
country. They earthed themselves up in some zone of the vertical
gorges, and one sees them, in this more accursed corner than those
where the hurricane reels. One senses this human material, in the
cavities of those smooth grottoes, like Dante's guilty shades.
Infernal glimmers disclose ranged lines of them, as long as roads,
slender and trembling spaces of night, which daylight and even sunshine
leave befouled with darkness and cyclopean dirt. Solid clouds overhang
them and hatchet-charged hurricanes, and leaping flashes set fire every
second to the sky's iron-mines up above the damned whose pale faces
change not under the ashes of death. They wait, intent on the
solemnity and the significance of that vast and heavy booming against
which they are for the moment imprisoned. They will be down forever
around the spot where they are. Like others before them, they will be
shrouded in perfect oblivion. Their cries will rise above the earth no
more than their lips. Their glory will not quit their poor bodies.
I am borne away in one of the aeroplanes whose multitude darkens the
light of day as flights of arrows do in children's story-books, forming
a vaulted army. They are a fleet which can disembark a million men and
their supplies anywhere at any moment. It is only a few years since we
heard the puling cry of the first aeroplanes, and now their voice
drowns all others. Their development has only normally proceeded, yet
they alone suffice to make the territorial safeguards demanded by the
deranged of former generations appear at last to all people as comical
jests. Swept along by the engine's formidable weight, a thousand times
more powerful than it is heavy, tossing in space and filling my fibers
with its roar, I see the dwindling mounds where the huge tubes stick up
like swarming pins. I am carried along at a height of two thousand
yards. An air-pocket has seized me in a corridor of cloud, and I have
fallen like a stone a thousand yards lower, garrotted by furious air
which is cold as a blade, and filled by a plunging cry. I have seen
conflagrations and the explosions of mines, and plumes of smoke which
flow disordered and spin out in long black zigzags like the locks of
the God of War! I have seen the concentric circles by which the
stippled multitude is ever renewed. The dugouts, lined with lifts,
descend in oblique parallels into the depths. One frightful night I
saw the enemy flood it all with an inexhaustible torrent of liquid
fire. I had a vision of that black and rocky valley filled to the brim
with the lava-stream which dazzled the sight and sent a dreadful
terrestrial dawn into the whole of night. With its heart aflame Earth
seemed to become transparent as glass along that crevasse; and amid the
lake of fire heaps of living beings floated on some raft, and writhed
like the spirits of damnation. The other men fled upwards, and piled
themselves in clusters on the straight-lined borders of the valley of
filth and tears. I saw those swarming shadows huddled on the upper
brink of the long armored chasms which the explosions set trembling
All chemistry makes flaming fireworks in the sky or spreads in sheets
of poison exactly as huge as the huge towns. Against them no wall
avails, no secret armor; and murder enters as invisibly as death
itself. Industry multiplies its magic. Electricity lets loose its
lightnings and thunders--and that miraculous mastery which hurls power
like a projectile.
Who can say if this enormous might of electricity alone will not change
the face of war?--the centralized cluster of waves, the irresistible
orbs going infinitely forth to fire and destroy all explosives, lifting
the rooted armor of the earth, choking the subterranean gulfs with
heaps of calcined men--who will be burned up like barren coal,--and
maybe even arousing the earthquakes, and tearing the central fires from
earth's depths like ore!
That will be seen by people who are alive to-day; and yet that vision
of the future so near at hand is only a slight magnification, flitting
through the brain. It terrifies one to think for how short a time
science has been methodical and of useful industry; and after all, is
there anything on earth more marvelously easy than destruction? Who
knows the new mediums it has laid in store? Who knows the limit of
cruelty to which the art of poisoning may go? Who knows if they will
not subject and impress epidemic disease as they do the living
armies--or that it will not emerge, meticulous, invincible, from the
armies of the dead? Who knows by what dread means they will sink in
oblivion this war, which only struck to the ground twenty thousand men
a day, which has invented guns of only seventy-five miles' range, bombs
of only one ton's weight, aeroplanes of only a hundred and fifty miles
an hour, tanks, and submarines which cross the Atlantic? Their costs
have not yet reached in any country the sum total of private fortunes.
But the upheavals we catch sight of, though we can only and hardly
indicate them in figures, will be too much for life. The desperate and
furious disappearance of soldiers will have a limit. We may no longer
be able to count; but Fate will count. Some day the men will be
killed, and the women and children. And they also will disappear--they
who stand erect upon the ignominious death of the soldiers,--they will
disappear along with the huge and palpitating pedestal in which they
were rooted. But they profit by the present, they believe it will last
as long as they, and as they follow each other they say, "After us, the
deluge." Some day all war will cease for want of fighters.
The spectacle of to-morrow is one of agony. Wise men make laughable
efforts to determine what may be, in the ages to come, the cause of the
inhabited world's end. Will it be a comet, the rarefaction of water,
or the extinction of the sun, that will destroy mankind? They have
forgotten the likeliest and nearest cause--Suicide.
They who say, "There will always be war," do not know what they are
saying. They are preyed upon by the common internal malady of
shortsight. They think themselves full of common-sense as they think
themselves full of honesty. In reality, they are revealing the clumsy
and limited mentality of the assassins themselves.
The shapeless struggle of the elements will begin again on the seared
earth when men have slain themselves because they were slaves, because
they believed the same things, because they were alike.
I utter a cry of despair and it seems as if I had turned over and
stifled it in a pillow.
* * * * * *
All is madness. And there is no one who will dare to rise and say that
all is not madness, and that the future does not so appear--as fatal
and unchangeable as a memory.
But how many men will there be who will dare, in face of the universal
deluge which will be at the end as it was in the beginning, to get up
and cry "No!" who will pronounce the terrible and irrefutable issue:--
"No! The interests of the people and the interests of all their
present overlords are not the same. Upon the world's antiquity there
are two enemy races--the great and the little. The allies of the great
are, in spite of appearances, the great. The allies of the people are
the people. Here on earth there is one tribe only of parasites and
ringleaders who are the victors, and one people only who are the
But, as in those earliest ages, will not thoughtful faces arise out of
the darkness? (For this is Chaos and the animal Kingdom; and Reason
being no more, she has yet to be born.)
"You must think; but with your own ideas, not other people's."
That lowly saying, a straw whirling in the measureless hand-to-hand
struggle of the armies, shines in my soul above all others. To think
is to hold that the masses have so far wrought too much evil without
wishing it, and that the ancient authorities, everywhere clinging fast,
violate humanity and separate the inseparable.
There have been those who magnificently dared. There have been bearers
of the truth, men who groped in the world's tumult, trying to make
plain order of it. They discover what we did not yet know; chiefly
they discover what we no longer knew.
But what a panic is here, among the powerful and the powers that be!
"Truth is revolutionary! Get you gone, truth-bearers! Away with you,
reformers! You bring in the reign of men!"
That cry was thrown into my ears one tortured night, like a whisper
from deeps below, when he of the broken wings was dying, when he
struggled tumultuously against the opening of men's eyes; but I had
always heard it round about me, always.
In official speeches, sometimes, at moments of great public flattery,
they speak like the reformers, but that is only the diplomacy which
aims at felling them better. They force the light-bearers to hide
themselves and their torches. These dreamers, these visionaries, these
star-gazers,--they are hooted and derided. Laughter is let loose
around them, machine-made laughter, quarrelsome and beastly:--
"Your notion of peace is only utopian, anyway, as long as you never,
any day, stopped the war by yourself!"
They point to the battlefield and its wreckage:--
"And you say that War won't be forever? Look, driveler!"
The circle of the setting sun is crimsoning the mingled horizon of
"You say that the sun is bigger than the earth? Look, imbecile!"
They are anathema, they are sacrilegious, they are excommunicated, who
impeach the magic of the past and the poison of tradition. And the
thousand million victims themselves scoff at and strike those who
rebel, as soon as they are able. All cast stones at them, all, even
those who suffer and while they are suffering--even the sacrificed, a
little before they die.
The bleeding soldiers of Wagram cry: "Long live the emperor!" And the
mournful exploited in the streets cheer for the defeat of those who are
trying to alleviate a suffering which is brother to theirs. Others,
prostrate in resignation, look on, and echo what is said above them:
"After us the deluge," and the saying passes across town and country in
one enormous and fantastic breath, for they are innumerable who murmur
it. Ah, it was well said:
"I have confidence in the abyss of the people."
* * * * * *
I, the normal man? What have I done on earth? I have bent the knee to
the forces which glitter, without seeking to know whence they came and
whither they guide. How have the eyes availed me that I had to see
with, the intelligence that I had to judge with?
Borne down by shame, I sobbed, "I don't know," and I cried out so
loudly that it seemed to me I was awaking for a moment out of slumber.
Hands are holding and calming me; they draw my shroud about me and
It seems to me that a shape has leaned over me, quite near, so near;
that a loving voice has said something to me; and then it seems to me
that I have listened to fond accents whose caress came from a great way
"Why shouldn't _you_ be one of them, my lad,--one of those great
I don't understand. I? How could I be?
All my thoughts go blurred. I am falling again. But I bear away in my
eyes the picture of an iron bed where lay a rigid shape. Around it
other forms were drooping, and one stood and officiated. But the
curtain of that vision is drawn. A great plain opens the room, which
had closed for a moment on me, and obliterates it.
Which way may I look? God? "_Miserere_----" The vibrating fragment
of the Litany has reminded me of God.
* * * * * *
I had seen Jesus Christ on the margin of the lake. He came like an
ordinary man along the path. There is no halo round his head. He is
only disclosed by his pallor and his gentleness. Planes of light draw
near and mass themselves and fade away around him. He shines in the
sky, as he shone on the water. As they have told of him, his beard and
hair are the color of wine. He looks upon the immense stain made by
Christians on the world, a stain confused and dark, whose edge alone,
down on His bare feet, has human shape and crimson color. In the
middle of it are anthems and burnt sacrifices, files of hooded cloaks,
and of torturers, armed with battle-axes, halberds and bayonets; and
among long clouds and thickets of armies, the opposing clash of two
crosses which have not quite the same shape. Close to him, too, on a
canvas wall, again I see the cross that bleeds. There are populations,
too, tearing themselves in twain that they may tear themselves the
better; there is the ceremonious alliance, "turning the needy out of
the way," of those who wear three crowns and those who wear one; and,
whispering in the ear of Kings, there are gray-haired Eminences, and
cunning monks, whose hue is of darkness.
I saw the man of light and simplicity bow his head; and I feel his
wonderful voice saying:
"I did not deserve the evil they have done unto me."
Robbed reformer, he is a witness of his name's ferocious glory. The
greed-impassioned money-changers have long since chased Him from the
temple in their turn, and put the priests in his place. He is
crucified on every crucifix.
Yonder among the fields are churches, demolished by war; and already
men are coming with mattock and masonry to raise the walls again. The
ray of his outstretched arm shines in space, and his clear voice says:
"Build not the churches again. They are not what you think they were.
Build them not again."
* * * * * *
There is no remedy but in them whom peace sentences to hard labor, and
whom war sentences to death. There is no redress except among the
* * * * * *
White shapes seem to return into the white room. Truth is simple.
They who say that truth is complicated deceive themselves, and the
truth is not in them. I see again, not far from me, a bed, a child, a
girl-child, who is asleep in our house; her eyes are only two lines.
Into our house, after a very long time, we have led my old aunt. She
approves affectionately, but all the same she said, very quietly, as
she left the perfection of our room, "It was better in my time." I am
thrilled by one of our windows, whose wings are opened wide upon the
darkness; the appeal which the chasm of that window makes across the
distances enters into me. One night, as it seems to me, it was open to
_I_--my heart--a gaping heart, enthroned in a radiance of blood. It is
mine, it is _ours_. The heart--that wound which we have. I have
compassion on myself.
I see again the rainy shore that I saw before time was, before earth's
drama was unfolded; and the woman on the sands. She moans and weeps,
among the pictures which the clouds of mortality offer and withdraw,
amid that which weaves the rain. She speaks so low that I feel it is
to me she speaks. She is one with me. Love--it comes back to me.
Love is an unhappy man and unhappy woman.
I awake--uttering the feeble cry of the babe new-born.
All grows pale, and paler. The whiteness I foresaw through the
whirlwinds and clamors--it is here. An odor of ether recalls to me the
memory of an awful memory, but shapeless. A white room, white walls,
and white-robed women who bend over me.
In a voice confused and hesitant, I say:
"I've had a dream, an absurd dream."
My hand goes to my eyes to drive it away.
"You struggled while you were delirious--especially when you thought
you were falling," says a calm voice to me, a sedate and familiar
voice, which knows me without my knowing the voice.
"Yes," I say!
I went to sleep in Chaos, and then I awoke like the first man.
I am in a bed, in a room. There is no noise--a tragedy of calm, and
horizons close and massive. The bed which imprisons me is one of a row
that I can see, opposite another row. A long floor goes in stripes as
far as the distant door. There are tall windows, and daylight wrapped
in linen. That is all which exists. I have always been here, I shall
Women, white and stealthy, have spoken to me. I picked up the new
sound, and then lost it. A man all in white has sat by me, looked at
me, and touched me. His eyes shone strangely, because of his glasses.
I sleep, and then they make me drink.
The long afternoon goes by in the long corridor. In the evening they
make light; at night, they put it out, and the lamps--which are in
rows, like the beds, like the windows, like everything--disappear.
Just one lamp remains, in the middle, on my right. The peaceful ghost
of dead things enjoins peace. But my eyes are open, I awake more and
more. I take hold of consciousness in the dark.
A stir is coming to life around me among the prostrate forms aligned in
the beds. This long room is immense; it has no end. The enshrouded
beds quiver and cough. They cough on all notes and in all ways, loose,
dry, or tearing. There is obstructed breathing, and gagged breathing,
and polluted, and sing-song. These people who are struggling with
their huge speech do not know themselves. I see their solitude as I
see them. There is nothing between the beds, nothing.
Of a sudden I see a globular mass with a moon-like face oscillating in
the night. With hands held out and groping for the rails of the
bedsteads, it is seeking its way. The orb of its belly distends and
stretches its shirt like a crinoline, and shortens it. The mass is
carried by two little and extremely slender legs, knobbly at the knees,
and the color of string. It reaches the next bed, the one which a
single ditch separates from mine. On another bed, a shadow is swaying
regularly, like a doll. The mass and the shadow are a negro, whose
big, murderous head is hafted with a tiny neck.
The hoarse concert of lungs and throats multiplies and widens. There
are some who raise the arms of marionettes out of the boxes of their
beds. Others remain interred in the gray of the bed-clothes. Now and
again, unsteady ghosts pass through the room and stoop between the
beds, and one hears the noise of a metal pail. At the end of the room,
in the dark jumble of those blind men who look straight before them and
the mutes who cough, I only see the nurse, because of her whiteness.
She goes from one shadow to another, and stoops over the motionless.
She is the vestal virgin who, so far as she can, prevents them from
I turn my head on the pillow. In the bed bracketed with mine on the
other side, under the glow which falls from the only surviving lamp,
there is a squat manikin in a heavy knitted vest, poultice-color. From
time to time, he sits up in bed, lifts his pointed head towards the
ceiling, shakes himself, and grasping and knocking together his
spittoon and his physic-glass, he coughs like a lion. I am so near to
him that I feel that hurricane from his flesh pass over my face, and
the odor of his inward wound.
* * * * * *
I have slept. I see more clearly than yesterday. I no longer have the
veil that was in front of me. My eyes are attracted distinctly by
everything which moves. A powerful aromatic odor assails me; I seek
the source of it. Opposite me, in full daylight, a nurse is rubbing
with a drug some gnarled and blackened hands, enormous paws which the
earth of the battlefields, where they were too long implanted, has
almost made moldy. The strong-smelling liquid is becoming a layer of
The foulness of his hands appalls me. Gathering my wits with an
effort, I said aloud:
"Why don't they wash his hands?"
My neighbor on the right, the gnome in the mustard vest, seems to hear
me, and shakes his head.
My eyes go back to the other side, and for hours I devote myself to
watching in obstinate detail, with wide-open eyes, the water-swollen
man whom I saw floating vaguely in the night like a balloon. By night
he was whitish. By day he is yellow, and his big eyes are glutted with
yellow. He gurgles, makes noises of subterranean water, and mingles
sighs with words and morsels of words. Fits of coughing tan his
His spittoon is always full. It is obvious that his heart, where his
wasted sulphurate hand is placed, beats too hard and presses his spongy
lungs and the tumor of water which distends him. He lives in the
settled notion of emptying his inexhaustible body. He is constantly
examining his bed-bottle, and I see his face in that yellow reflection.
All day I watched the torture and punishment of that body. His cap and
tunic, no longer in the least like him, hang from a nail.
Once, when he lay engulfed and choking, he pointed to the negro,
perpetually oscillating, and said:
"He wanted to kill himself because he was homesick."
The doctor has said to me--to _me_: "You're going on nicely." I
wanted to ask him to talk to me about myself, but there was no time to
Towards evening my yellow-vested neighbor, emerging from his
meditations and continuing to shake his head, answers my questions of
"They can't wash his hands--it's embedded."
A little later that day I became restless. I lifted my arm--it was
clothed in white linen. I hardly knew my emaciated hand--that shadow
stranger! But I recognized the identity disk on my wrist. Ah, then!
that went with me into the depths of hell!
For hours on end my head remains empty and sleepless, and there are
hosts of things that I perceive badly, which are, and then are not. I
have answered some questions. When I say, Yes, it is a sigh that I
utter, and only that. At other times, I seem again to be half-swept
away into pictures of tumored plains and mountains crowned. Echoes of
these things vibrate in my ears, and I wish that some one would come
who could explain the dreams.
* * * * * *
Strange footsteps are making the floor creak, and stopping there. I
open my eyes. A woman is before me. Ah! the sight of her throws me
into infinite confusion! She is the woman of my vision. Was it true,
then? I look at her with wide-open eyes. She says to me:
Then she bends low and adds softly:
"I'm Marie; you're Simon."
"Ah!" I say. "I remember."
I repeat the profound words she has just uttered. She speaks to me
again with the voice which comes back from far away. I half rise. I
look again. I learn myself again, word by word.
It is she, naturally, who tells me I was wounded in the chest and hip,
and that I lay three days forsaken--ragged wounds, much blood lost, a
lot of fever, and enormous fatigue.
"You'll get up soon," she says.
I get up?--I, the prostrate being? I am astonished and afraid.
Marie goes away. She increases my solitude, step by step, and for a
long time my eyes follow her going and her absence.
In the evening I hear a secret and whispered conference near the bed of
the sick man in the brown vest. He is curled up, and breathes humbly.
They say, very low:
"He's going to die--in one hour from now, or two. He's in such a state
that to-morrow morning he'll be rotten. He must be taken away on the
At nine in the evening they say that, and then they put the lights out
and go away. I can see nothing more but him. There is the one lamp,
close by, watching over him. He pants and trickles. He shines as
though it rained on him. His beard has grown, grimily. His hair is
plastered on his sticky forehead; his sweat is gray.
In the morning the bed is empty, and adorned with clean sheets.
And along with the man annulled, all the things he had poisoned have
"It'll be Number Thirty-six's turn next," says the orderly.
I follow the direction of his glance. I see the condemned man. He is
writing a letter. He speaks, he lives. But he is wounded in the
belly. He carries his death like a fetus.
* * * * * *
It is the day when we change our clothes. Some of the invalids manage
it by themselves; and, sitting up in bed, they perform signaling
operations with arms and white linen. Others are helped by the nurse.
On their bare flesh I catch sight of scars and cavities, and parts
stitched and patched, of a different shade. There is even a case of
amputation (and bronchitis) who reveals a new and rosy stump, like a
new-born infant. The negro does not move while they strip his thin,
insect-like trunk; and then, bleached once more, he begins again to
rock his head, looking boundlessly for the sun and for Africa. They
exhume the paralyzed man from his sheets and change his clothes
opposite me. At first he lies motionless in his clean shirt, in a
lump. Then he makes a guttural noise which brings the nurse up. In a
cracked voice, as of a machine that speaks, he asks her to move his
feet, which are caught in the sheet. Then he lies staring, arranged in
rigid orderliness within the boards of his carcass.
Marie has come back and is sitting on a chair. We both spell out the
past, which she brings me abundantly. My brain is working
"We're quite near home, you know," Marie says.
Her words extricate our home, our quarter; they have endless echoes.
That day I raised myself on the bed and looked out of the window for
the first time, although it had always been there, within reach of my
eyes. And I saw the sky for the first time, and a gray yard as well,
where it was visibly cold, and a gray day, an ordinary day, like life,
Quickly the days wiped each other out. Gradually I got up, in the
middle of the men who had relapsed into childhood, and were awkwardly
beginning again, or plaintively complaining in their beds. I have
strolled in the wards, and then along a path. It is a matter of
formalities now--convalescence, and in a month's time the Medical
At last Marie came one morning for me, to go home, for that interval.
She found me on the seat in the yard of the hospital, which used to be
a school, under the cloth--which was the only spot where a ray of
sunshine could get in. I was meditating in the middle of an assembly
of old cripples and men with heads or arms bandaged, with ragged and
incongruous equipment, with sick clothes. I detached myself from the
miracle-yard and followed Marie, after thanking the nurse and saying
good-by to her.
The corporal of the hospital orderlies is the vicar of our church--he
who said and who spread it about that he was going to share the
soldiers' sufferings, like all the priests. Marie says to me, "Aren't
you going to see him?"
"No," I say.
We set out for life by a shady path, and then the high road came. We
walked slowly. Marie carried the bundle. The horizons were even, the
earth was flat and made no noise, and the dome of the sky no longer
banged like a big clock. The fields were empty, right to the end,
because of the war; but the lines of the road were scriptural, turning
not aside to the right hand or to the left. And I, cleansed,
simplified, lucid--though still astonished at the silence and affected
by the peacefulness--I saw it all distinctly, without a veil, without
anything. It seemed to me that I bore within me a great new reason,
We were not far away. Soon we uncovered the past, step by step. As
fast as we drew near, smaller and smaller details introduced themselves
and told us their names--that tree with the stones round it, those
forsaken and declining sheds. I even found recollections shut up in
the little retreats of the kilometer-stones.
But Marie was looking at me with an indefinable expression.
"You're icy cold," she said to me suddenly, shivering.
"No," I said, "no."
We stopped at an inn to rest and eat, and it was already evening when
we reached the streets.
Marie pointed out a man who was crossing over, yonder.
"Monsieur Rampaille is rich now, because of the War."
Then it was a woman, dressed in fluttering white and blue, disappearing
round the corner of a house:
"That's Antonia Véron. She's been in the Red Cross service. She's got
a decoration because of the War."
"Ah!" I said, "everything's changed."
Now we are in sight of the house. The distance between the corner of
the street and the house seems to me smaller than it should be. The
court comes to an end suddenly; its shape looks shorter than it is in
reality. In the same way, all the memories of my former life appear
dwindled to me.
The house, the rooms. I have climbed the stairs and come down again,
watched by Marie. I have recognized everything; some things even which
I did not see. There is no one else but us two in the falling night,
as though people had agreed not to show themselves yet to this man who
"There--now we're at home," says Marie, at last.
We sit down, facing each other.
"What are we going to do?"
"We're going to live."
"We're going to live."
I ponder. She looks at me stealthily, with that mysterious expression
of anguish which gets over me. I notice the precautions she takes in
watching me. And once it seemed to me that her eyes were red with
crying. I--I think of the hospital life I am leaving, of the gray
street, and the simplicity of things.
* * * * * *
A day has slipped away already. In one day all the time gone by has
reëstablished itself. I am become again what I was. Except that I am
not so strong or so calm as before, it is as though nothing had
But truth is more simple than before.
I inquire of Marie after this one or the other and question her.
Marie says to me:
"You're always saying Why?--like a child."
All the same I do not talk much. Marie is assiduous; obviously she is
afraid of my silence. Once, when I was sitting opposite her and had
said nothing for a long time, she suddenly hid her face in her hands,
and in her turn she asked me, through her sobs:
"Why are you like that?"
"It seems to me," I say at last, by way of answer, "that I am seeing
things as they are."
"My poor boy!" Marie says, and she goes on crying.
I am touched by this obscure trouble. True, everything is obvious
around me, but as it were laid bare. I have lost the secret which
complicated life. I no longer have the illusion which distorts and
conceals, that fervor, that sort of blind and unreasoning bravery which
tosses you from one hour to the next, and from day to day.
And yet I am just taking up life again where I left it. I am upright,
I am getting stronger and stronger. I am not ending, but beginning.
I slept profoundly, all alone in our bed.
Next morning, I saw Crillon, planted in the living-room downstairs. He
held out his arms, and shouted. After expressing good wishes, he
informs me, all in a breath:
"You don't know what's happened in the Town Council? Down yonder,
towards the place they call Little January, y'know, there's a steep
hill that gets wider as it goes down an' there's a gaslamp and a
watchman's box where all the cyclists that want to smash their faces,
and a few days ago now a navvy comes and sticks himself in there and no
one never knew his name, an' he got a cyclist on his head an' he's gone
dead. And against that gaslamp broken up by blows from cyclists they
proposed to put a notice-board, although all recommendations would be
superfluent. You catch on that it's nothing less than a maneuver to
get the mayor's shirt out?"
Crillon's words vanish. As fast as he utters them I detach myself from
all this poor old stuff. I cannot reply to him, when he has ceased,
and Marie and he are looking at me. I say, "Ah!"
He coughs, to keep me in countenance. Shortly, he takes himself off.
Others come, to talk of their affairs and the course of events in the
district. There is a regular buzz. So-and-so has been killed, but
So-and-so is made an officer. So-and-so has got a clerking job. Here
in the town, So-and-so has got rich. How's the War going on?
They surround me, with questioning faces. And yet it is I, still more
than they, who am one immense question.
* * * * * *
EYES THAT SEE
Two days have passed. I get up, dress myself, and open my shutters.
It is Sunday, as you can see in the street.
I put on my clothes of former days. I catch myself paying spruce
attention to my toilet, since it is Sunday, by reason of the compulsion
one feels to do the same things again.
And now I see how much my face has hollowed, as I compare it with the
one I had left behind in the familiar mirror.
I go out, and meet several people. Madame Piot asks me how many of the
enemy I have killed. I reply that I killed one. Her tittle-tattle
accosts another subject. I feel the enormous difference there was
between what she asked me and what I answered.
The streets are clad in the mourning of closed shops. It is still the
same empty and hermetically sealed face of the day of holiday. My eyes
notice, near the sunken post, the old jam-pot, which has not moved.
I climb on to Chestnut Hill. No one is there, because it is Sunday.
In that white winding-sheet, that widespread pallor of Sunday, all my
former lot builds itself again, house by house.
I look outwards from the top of the hill. All is the same in the lines
and the tones. The spectacle of yesterday and that of to-day are as
identical as two picture postcards. I see my house--the roof, and
three-quarters of the front. I feel a pleasant thrill. I feel that I
love this corner of the earth, but especially my house.
What, is everything the same? Is there nothing new, nothing? Is the
only changed thing the man that I am, walking too slowly in clothes too
big, the man grown old and leaning on a stick?
The landscape is barren in the inextricable simplicity of the daylight.
I do not know why I was expecting revelations. In vain my gaze wanders
everywhere, to infinity.
But a darkening of storm fills and agitates the sky, and suddenly
clothes the morning with a look of evening. The crowd which I see
yonder along the avenue, under cover of the great twilight which goes
by with its invisible harmony, profoundly draws my attention.
All those shadows which are shelling themselves out along the road are
very tiny, they are separated from one another, they are of the same
stature. From a distance one sees how much one man resembles another.
And it is true that a man is like a man. The one is not of a different
species from the other. It is a certainty which I am bringing
forward--the only one; and the truth is simple, for what I believe I
see with my eyes.
The equality of all these human spots that appear in the somber gleams
of storm, why--it is a revelation! It is a beginning of distinct order
in Chaos. How comes it that I have never seen what is so visible, how
comes it that I never perceived that obvious thing--that a man and
another man are the same thing, everywhere and always? I rejoice that
I have seen it as if my destiny were to shed a little light on us and
on our road.
* * * * * *
The bells are summoning our eyes to the church. It is surrounded by
scaffolding, and a long swarm of people are gliding towards it,
grouping round it, going in.
The earth and the sky--but I do not see God. I see everywhere,
everywhere, God's absence. My gaze goes through space and returns,
forsaken. And I have never seen Him, and He is nowhere, nowhere,
No one ever saw Him. I know--I always knew, for that matter!--that
there is no proof of God's existence, and that you must find, first of
all, believe in it if you want to prove it. Where does He show
Himself? What does He save? What tortures of the heart, what
disasters does He turn aside from all and each in the ruin of hearts?
Where have we known or handled or embraced anything but His name?
God's absence surrounds infinitely and even actually each kneeling
suppliant, athirst for some humble personal miracle, and each seeker
who bends over his papers as he watches for proofs like a creator; it
surrounds the spiteful antagonism of all religions, armed against each
other, enormous and bloody. God's absence rises like the sky over the
agonizing conflicts between good and evil, over the trembling
heedfulness of the upright, over the immensity--still haunting me--of
the cemeteries of agony, the charnel heaps of innocent soldiers, the
heavy cries of the shipwrecked. Absence! Absence! In the hundred
thousand years that life has tried to delay death there has been
nothing on earth more fruitless than man's cries to divinity, nothing
which gives so perfect an idea of silence.
How does it come about that I have lasted till now without
understanding that I did not see God? I believed because they had told
me to believe. It seems to me that I am able to believe something no
longer because they command me to, and I feel myself set free.
I lean on the stones of the low wall, at the spot where I leaned of
old, in the time when I thought I was some one and knew something.
My looks fall on the families and the single figures which are hurrying
towards the black hole of the church porch, towards the gloom of the
nave, where one is enlaced in incense, where wheels of light and angels
of color hover under the vaults which contain a little of the great
emptiness of the heavens.
I seem to stoop nearer to those people, and I get glimpses of certain
profundities among the fleeting pictures which my sight lends me. I
seem to have stopped, at random, in front of the richness of a single
being. I think of the "humble, quiet lives," and it appears to me
within a few words, and that in what they call a "quiet, lowly life,"
there are immense expectations and waitings and weariness.
I understand why they want to believe in God, and consequently why they
do believe in Him, since faith comes at will.
I remember, while I lean on this wall and listen, that one day in the
past not far from here, a lowly woman raised her voice and said, "That
woman does not believe in God! It's because she has no children, or
else because they've never been ill."
And I remember, too, without being able to picture them to myself, all
the voices I have heard saying, "It would be too unjust, if there were
There is no other proof of God's existence than the need we have of
Him. God is not God--He is the name of all that we lack. He is our
dream, carried to the sky. God is a prayer, He is not some one.
They put all His kind actions into the eternal future, they hide them
in the unknown. Their agonizing dues they drown in distances which
outdistance them; they cancel His contradictions in inaccessible
uncertainty. No matter; they believe in the idol made of a word.
And I? I have awaked out of religion, since it was a dream. It had to
be that one morning my eyes would end by opening and seeing nothing
more of it.
I do not see God, but I see the church and I see the priests. Another
ceremony is unfolding just now, in another direction--up at the castle,
a Mass of St. Hubert. Leaning on my elbows the spectacle absorbs me.
These ministers of the cult, blessing this pack of hounds, these guns
and hunting knives, officiating in lace and pomp side by side with
these wealthy people got up as warlike sportsmen, women and men alike,
on the great steps of a castle and facing a crowd kept aloof by
ropes,--this spectacle defines, more glaringly than any words whatever
can, the distance which separates the churches of to-day from Christ's
teaching, and points to all the gilded putridity which has accumulated
on those pure defaced beginnings. And what is here is everywhere; what
is little is great.
The parsons, the powerful--all always joined together. Ah, certainty
is rising to the heart of my conscience. Religions destroy themselves
spiritually because they are many. They destroy whatever leans upon
their fables. But their directors, they who are the strength of the
idol, impose it. They decree authority; they hide the light. They are
men, defending their interests as men; they are rulers defending their
It has to be! You shall _not_ know! A terrible memory shudders
through me; and I catch a confused glimpse of people who, for the needs
of their common cause, uphold, with their promises and thunder, the mad
unhappiness which lies heavy on the multitudes.
* * * * * *
Footsteps are climbing towards me. Marie appears, dressed in gray.
She comes to look for me. In the distance I saw that her cheeks were
brightened and rejuvenated by the wind. Close by I see that her
eyelids are worn, like silk. She finds me sunk in reflection. She
looks at me, like a frail and frightened mother; and this solicitude
which she brings me is enough by itself to calm and comfort me.
I point out to her the dressed-up commotion below us, and make some
bitter remark on the folly of these people who vainly gather in the
church, and go to pray there, to talk all alone. Some of them believe;
and the rest say to them, "I do the same as you."
Marie does not argue the basis of religion. "Ah," she says, "I've
never thought clearly about it, never. They've always spoken of God to
me, and I've always believed in Him. But--I don't know. I only know
one thing," she adds, her blue eyes looking at me, "and that is that
there must be delusion. The people must have religion, so as to put up
with the hardships of life, the sacrifices----"
She goes on again at once, more emphatically, "There must be religion
for the unhappy, so that they won't give way. It may be foolishness,
but if you take that away from them, what have they left?"
The gentle woman--the normal woman of settled habits--whom I had left
here repeats, "There must be illusion." She sticks to this idea, she
insists, she is taking the side of the unhappy. Perhaps she talks like
that for her own sake, and perhaps only because she is compassionate
I said in vain, "No--there must never be delusion, never fallacies.
There should be no more lies. We shall not know then where we're
She persists and makes signs of dissent.
I say no more, tired. But I do not lower my gaze before the
all-powerful surroundings of circumstance. My eyes are pitiless, and
cannot help descrying the false God and the false priests everywhere.
We go down the footpath and return in silence. But it seems to me that
the rule of evil is hidden in easy security among the illusions which
they heap up over us. I am nothing; I am no more than I was before,
but I am applying my hunger for the truth. I tell myself again that
there is no supernatural power, that nothing has fallen from the sky;
that everything is within us and in our hands. And in the inspiration
of that faith my eyes embrace the magnificence of the empty sky, the
abounding desert of the earth, the Paradise of the Possible.
We pass along the base of the church. Marie says to me--as if nothing
had just been said, "Look how the poor church was damaged by a bomb
from an aeroplane--all one side of the steeple gone. The good old
vicar was quite ill about it. As soon as he got up he did nothing else
but try to raise money to have his dear steeple built up again; and he
People are revolving round the building and measuring its yawning
mutilation with their eyes. My thoughts turn to all these passers-by
and to all those who will pass by, whom I shall not see, and to other
wounded steeples. The most beautiful of all voices echoes within me,
and I would fain make use of it for this entreaty, "Build not the
churches again! You who will come after us, you who, in the sharp
distinctness of the ended deluge will perhaps be able to see the order
of things more clearly, don't build the churches again! They did not
contain what we used to believe, and for centuries they have only been
the prisons of the saviours, and monumental lies. If you are still of
the faith have your temples within yourselves. But if you again bring
stones to build up a narrow and evil tradition, that is the end of all.
In the name of justice, in the name of light, in the name of pity, do
not build the churches again!"
But I did not say anything. I bow my head and walk more heavily.
I see Madame Marcassin coming out of the church with blinking eyes,
weary-looking, a widow indeed. I bow and approach her and talk to her
a little, humbly, about her husband, since I was under his orders and
saw him die. She listens to me in dejected inattention. She is
elsewhere. She says to me at last, "I had a memorial service since
it's usual." Then she maintains a silence which means "There's nothing
to be said, just as there's nothing to be done." In face of that
emptiness I understand the crime that Marcassin committed in letting
himself be killed for nothing but the glory of dying.
* * * * * *
We have gone out together and aimlessly; we walk straight forward.
It is an autumnal day--gray lace of clouds and wind. Some dried leaves
lie on the ground and others go whirling. We are in August, but it is
an autumn day all the same. Days do not allow themselves to be set in
strict order, like men.
Our steps take us in the direction of the waterfall and the mill. We
have seldom been there again since our engagement days. Marie is
covered in a big gray cloak; her hat is black silk with a little square
of color embroidered in front. She looks tired, and her eyes are red.
When she walks in front of me I see the twisted mass of her beautiful
Instinctively we both looked for the inscriptions we cut, once upon a
time, on trees and on stones, in foolish delight. We sought them like
scattered treasure, on the strange cheeks of the old willows, near the
tendrils of the fall, on the birches that stand like candles in front
of the violet thicket, and on the old fir which so often sheltered us
with its dark wings. Many inscriptions have disappeared. Some are
worn away because things do; some are covered by a host of other
inscriptions or they are distorted and ugly. Nearly all have passed on
as if they had been passers-by.
Marie is tired. She often sits down, with her big cloak and her
sensible air; and as she sits she seems like a statue of nature, of
space, and the wind.
We do not speak. We have gone down along the side of the
river--slowly, as if we were climbing--towards the stone seat of the
wall. The distances have altered. This seat, for instance, we meet it
sooner than we thought we should, like some one in the dark; but it is
the seat all right. The rose-tree which grew above it has withered
away and become a crown of thorns.
There are dead leaves on the stone slab. They come from the chestnuts
yonder. They fell on the ground and yet they have flown away as far as
On this seat--where she came to me for the first time, which was once
so important to us that it seemed as if the background of things all
about us had been created by us--we sit down to-day, after we have
vainly sought in nature the traces of our transit.
The landscape is peaceful, simple, empty; it fills us with a great
quivering. Marie is so sad and so simple that you can see her thought.
I have leaned forward, my elbows on my knees. I have contemplated the
gravel at my feet; and suddenly I start, for I understand that my eyes
were looking for the marks of our footsteps, in spite of the stone, in
spite of the sand.
After the solemnity of a long silence, Marie's face takes on a look of
defeat, and suddenly she begins to cry. The tears which fill her--for
one always weeps in full, drop on to her knees. And through her sobs
there fall from her wet lips words almost shapeless, but desperate and
fierce, as a burst of forced laughter.
"It's all over!" she cries.
* * * * * *
I have put my arm round her waist, and I am shaken by the sorrow which
agitates her chest and throat, and sometimes shakes her rudely, the
sorrow which does not belong to me, which belongs to no one, and is
like a divinity.
She becomes composed. I take her hand. In a weak voice she calls some
memories up--this and that--and "one morning----" She applies herself
to it and counts them. I speak, too, gently. We question each other.
"Do you remember?"--"Oh, yes." And when some more precise and intimate
detail prompts the question we only reply, "A little." Our separation
and the great happenings past which the world has whirled have made the
past recoil and shaped a deep ditch. Nothing has changed; but when we
look we see.
Once, after we had recalled to each other an enchanted summer evening,
I said, "We loved each other," and she answered, "I remember."
I call her by her name, in a low voice, so as to draw her out of the
dumbness into which she is falling.
She listens to me, and then says, placidly, despairingly,
"'_Marie_,'--you used to say it like that. I can't realize that I had
the same name."
A few moments later, as we talked of something else, she said to me at
last, "Ah, that day we had dreams of travel, about our plans--_you were
there_, sitting by my side."
In those former times we lived. Now we hardly live any more, since we
have lived. They who we were are dead, for we are here. Her glances
come to me, but they do not join again the two surviving voids that we
are; her look does not wipe out our widowhood, nor change anything.
And I, I am too imbued with clear-sighted simplicity and truth to
answer "no" when it is "yes." In this moment by my side Marie is like
The immense mourning of human hearts appears to us. We dare not name
it yet; but we dare not let it not appear in all that we say.
* * * * * *
Then we see a woman, climbing the footpath and coming nearer to us. It
is Marthe, grown up, full-blown. She says a few words to us and then
goes away, smiling. She smiles, she who plays a part in our drama.
The likeness which formerly haunted me now haunts Marie, too--both of
us, side by side, and without saying it, harbored the same thought, to
see that child growing up and showing what Marie was.
Marie confesses all, all at once, "I was only my youth and my beauty,
like all women. And _there_ go my youth and beauty--Marthe! Then,
I----?" In anguish she goes on, "I'm not old yet, since I'm only
thirty-five, but I've aged very quickly; I've some white hairs that you
can see, close to; I'm wrinkled and my eyes have sunk. I'm here, in
life, to live, to occupy my time; but I'm nothing more than I am! Of
course, I'm still alive, but the future comes to an end before life
does. Ah, it's really only youth that has a place in life. All young
faces are alike and go from one to the other without ever being
deceived. They wipe out and destroy all the rest, and they make the
others see themselves as they are, so that they become useless."
She is right! When the young woman stands up she takes, in fact, the
other's place in the ideal and in the human heart, and makes of the
other a returning ghost. It is true. I knew it. Ah, I did not know
it was so true! It is too obvious. I cannot deny it. Again a cry of
assent rises to my lips and prevents me from saying, "No."
I cannot turn away from Marthe's advent, nor as I look at her, from
recognizing Marie. I know she has had several little love-affairs.
Just now she is alone. She is alone, but she will soon be
leaning--yes, phantom or reality, man is not far from her. It is
dazzling. Most certainly, I no longer think as I used to do that it is
a sort of duty to satisfy the selfish promptings one has, and I have
now got an inward veneration for right-doing; but all the same, if that
being came to me, I know well that I should become, before all, and in
spite of all, an immense cry of delight.
Marie falls back upon her idea, obdurately, and says, "A woman only
lives by love and for love. When she's no longer good for that she's
no longer anything."
She repeats, "You see--I'm nothing any more."
Ah, she is at the bottom of her abyss! She is at the extremity of a
woman's mourning! She is not thinking only of me. Her thought is
higher and vaster. She is thinking of all the woman she is, of all
that love is, of all possible things when she says, "I'm no longer
anything." And _I_--I am only he who is present with her just now, and
no help whatever is left her to look for from any one.
I should like to pacify and console this woman who is gentleness and
simplicity and who is sinking there while she lightly touches me with
her presence--but exactly because she is there I cannot lie to her, I
can do nothing against her grief, her perfect, infallible grief.
"Ah!" she cries, "if we came to life again!"
But she, too, has tried to cling to illusion. I see by the track of
her tears, and because I am looking at her--that she has powdered her
face to-day and put rouge on her lips, perhaps even on her cheeks, as
she did in bygone days, laughing, to set herself off, in spite of me.
This woman who tries to keep a good likeness of herself through passing
time, to be fixed upon herself, who paints herself, she is, to that
extent like what Rembrandt the profound and Titian the bold and
exquisite did--make enduring, and save! But this time, a few tears
have washed away the fragile, mortal effort.
She tries also to delude herself with words, and to discover something
in them which would transform her. She asserts, as she did the other
morning, "There must be illusion. No, we must not see things as they
are." But I see clearly that such words do not exist.
Once, when she was looking at me distressfully, she murmured,
"_You_--you've no more illusion at all. I pity you!"
At that moment, within the space of a flash, she was thinking of me
only, and she pities me! She has found something in her grief to give
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