The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Vicente Blasco Ibanez
Part 7 out of 8
course of events. Everything which had been happening in the early
morning hours was going to sink into insignificance compared with
what was coming now. He shuddered with fear, the irresistible fear
of the unknown, and yet at the same time, he was filled with
curiosity, impatience and nervous dread before a danger that
threatened and would not stay its relentless course.
Outside the park, but a short distance from the mud wall, sounded a
strident explosion like a stupendous blow from a gigantic axe--an
axe as big as his castle. There began flying through the air entire
treetops, trunks split in two, great chunks of earth with the
vegetation still clinging, a rain of dirt that obscured the heavens.
Some stones fell down from the wall. The Germans crouched but with
no visible emotion. They knew what it meant; they had been
expecting it as something inevitable after seeing the French
aeroplane. The Red Cross flag could no longer deceive the enemy's
Don Marcelo had not time to recover from his surprise before there
came a second explosion nearer the mud wall . . . a third inside the
park. It seemed to him that he had been suddenly flung into another
world from which he was seeing men and things across a fantastic
atmosphere which roared and rocked and destroyed with the violence
of its reverberations. He was stunned with the awfulness of it all,
and yet he was not afraid. Until then, he had imagined fear in a
very different form. He felt an agonizing vacuum in his stomach.
He staggered violently all the time, as though some force were
pushing him about, giving him first a blow on the chest, and then
another on the back to straighten him up.
A strong smell of acids penetrated the atmosphere, making
respiration very difficult, and filling his eyes with smarting
tears. On the other hand, the uproar no longer disturbed him, it
did not exist for him. He supposed it was still going on from the
trembling air, the shaking of things around him, in the whirlwind
which was bending men double but was not reacting within his body.
He had lost the faculty of hearing; all the strength of his senses
had concentrated themselves in looking. His eyes appeared to have
acquired multiple facets like those of certain insects. He saw what
was happening before, beside, behind him, simultaneously witnessing
extraordinary things as though all the laws of life had been
An official a few feet away suddenly took an inexplicable flight.
He began to rise without losing his military rigidity, still
helmeted, with furrowed brow, moustache blond and short, mustard-
colored chest, and gloved hands still holding field-glasses and map--
but there his individuality stopped. The lower extremities, in
their grayish leggings remained on the ground, inanimate as
reddening, empty moulds. The trunk, in its violent ascent, spread
its contents abroad like a bursting rocket. Further on, some
gunners, standing upright, were suddenly stretched full length,
converted into a motionless row, bathed in blood.
The line of infantry was lying close to the ground. The men had
huddled themselves together near the loopholes through which they
aimed their guns, trying to make themselves less visible. Many had
placed their knapsacks over their heads or at their backs to defend
themselves from the flying bits of shell. If they moved at all, it
was only to worm their way further into the earth, trying to hollow
it out with their stomachs. Many of them had changed position with
mysterious rapidity, now lying stretched on their backs as though
asleep. One had his uniform torn open across the abdomen, showing
between the rents of the cloth, slabs of flesh, blue and red that
protruded and swelled up with a bubbling expansion. Another had his
legs shot away, and was looking around with surprised eyes and a
black mouth rounded into an effort to howl, but from which no sound
Desnoyers had lost all notion of time. He could not tell whether he
had been rooted to that spot for many hours or for a single moment.
The only thing that caused him anxiety was the persistent trembling
of his legs which were refusing to sustain him. . . .
Something fell behind him. It was raining ruin. Turning his head,
he saw his castle completely transformed. Half of the tower had
just been carried off. The pieces of slate were scattered
everywhere in tiny chips; the walls were crumbling; loose window
frames were balancing on edge like fragments of stage scenery, and
the old wood of the tower hood was beginning to burn like a torch.
The spectacle of this instantaneous change in his property impressed
him more than the ravages of death, making him realize the Cyclopean
power of the blind, avenging forces raging around him. The vital
force that had been concentrated in his eyes, now spread to his
feet . . . and he started to run without knowing whither, feeling
the same necessity to hide himself as had those men enchained by
discipline who were trying to flatten themselves into the earth in
imitation of the reptile's pliant invisibility.
His instinct was pushing him toward the lodge, but half way up the
avenue, he was stopped by another lot of astounding transformations.
An unseen hand had just snatched away half of the cottage roof. The
entire side wall doubled over, forming a cascade of bricks and dust.
The interior rooms were now exposed to view like a theatrical
setting--the kitchen where he had eaten, the upper floor with the
room in which he descried his still unmade bed. The poor women! . . .
He turned around, running now toward the castle, trying to make the
sub-cellar in which he had been fastened for the night; and when he
finally found himself under those dusty cobwebs, he felt as though
he were in the most luxurious salon, and he devoutly blessed the
good workmanship of the castle builders.
The subterranean silence began gradually to bring back his sense of
hearing. The cannonading of the Germans and the bursting of the
French shells sounded from his retreat like a distant tempest.
There came into his mind the eulogies which he had been accustomed
to lavish upon the cannon of '75 without knowing anything about it
except by hearsay. Now he had witnessed its effects. "It shoots
TOO well!" he muttered. In a short time it would finish destroying
his castle--he was finding such perfection excessive.
But he soon repented of these selfish lamentations. An idea,
tenacious as remorse, had fastened itself in his brain. It now
seemed to him that all he was passing through was an expiation for
the great mistake of his youth. He had evaded the service of his
country, and now he was enveloped in all the horrors of war, with
the humiliation of a passive and defenseless being, without any of
the soldier's satisfaction of being able to return the blows. He
was going to die--he was sure of that--but a shameful death, unknown
and inglorious. The ruins of his mansion were going to become his
sepulchre. . . . And the certainty of dying there in the darkness,
like a rat that sees the openings of his hole being closed up, made
this refuge intolerable.
Above him the tornado was still raging. A peal like thunder boomed
above his head, and then came the crash of a landslide. Another
projectile must have fallen upon the building. He heard shrieks of
agony, yells and precipitous steps on the floor above him. Perhaps
the shell, in its blind fury, had blown to pieces many of the dying
in the salons.
Fearing to remain buried in his retreat, he bounded up the cellar
stairs two steps at a time. As he scudded across the first floor,
he saw the sky through the shattered roofs. Along the edges were
hanging sections of wood, fragments of swinging tile and furniture
stopped halfway in its flight. Crossing the hall, he had to clamber
over much rubbish. He stumbled over broken and twisted iron, parts
of beds rained from the upper rooms into the mountain of debris in
which he saw convulsed limbs and heard anguished voices that he
could not understand.
He leaped as he ran, feeling the same longing for light and free air
as those who rush from the hold to the deck of a shipwreck. While
sheltered in the darkness more time had elapsed than he had
supposed. The sun was now very high. He saw in the garden more
corpses in tragic and grotesque postures. The wounded were doubled
over with pain or lying on the ground or propping themselves against
the trees in painful silence. Some had opened their knapsacks and
drawn out their sanitary kits and were trying to care for their
cuts. The infantry was now firing incessantly. The number of
riflemen had increased. New bands of soldiers were entering the
park--some with a sergeant at their head, others followed by an
officer carrying a revolver at his breast as though guiding his men
with it. This must be the infantry expelled from their position
near the river which had come to reinforce the second line of
defense. The mitrailleuses were adding their tac-tac to the cracks
of the fusileers.
The hum of the invisible swarms was buzzing incessantly. Thousands
of sticky horse-flies were droning around Desnoyers without his even
seeing them. The bark of the trees was being stripped by unseen
hands; the leaves were falling in torrents; the boughs were shaken
by opposing forces, the stones on the ground were being crushed by a
mysterious foot. All inanimate objects seemed to have acquired a
fantastic life. The zinc spoons of the soldiers, the metallic parts
of their outfit, the pails of the artillery were all clanking as
though in an imperceptible hailstorm. He saw a cannon lying on its
side with the wheels broken and turned over among many men who
appeared asleep; he saw soldiers who stretched themselves out
without a contraction, without a sound, as though overcome by sudden
drowsiness. Others were howling and dragging themselves forward in
a sitting position.
The old man felt an extreme sensation of heat. The pungent perfume
of explosive drugs brought the tears to his eyes and clawed at his
throat. At the same time he was chilly and felt his forehead
freezing in a glacial sweat.
He had to leave the bridge. Several soldiers were passing bearing
the wounded to the edifice in spite of the fact that it was falling
in ruins. Suddenly he was sprinkled from head to foot, as if the
earth had opened to make way for a waterspout. A shell had fallen
into the moat, throwing up an enormous column of water, making the
carp sleeping in the mud fly into fragments, breaking a part of the
edges and grinding to powder the white balustrades with their great
urns of flowers.
He started to run on with the blindness of terror, when he suddenly
saw before him the same little round crystal, examining him coolly.
It was the Junker, the officer of the monocle. . . . With the end
of his revolver, the German pointed to two pails a short distance
away, ordering Desnoyers to fill them from the lagoon and give the
water to the men overcome by the sun. Although the imperious tone
admitted of no reply, Don Marcelo tried, nevertheless, to resist.
He received a blow from the revolver on his chest at the same time
that the lieutenant slapped him in the face. The old man doubled
over, longing to weep, longing to perish; but no tears came, nor did
life escape from his body under this affront, as he wished. . . .
With the two buckets in his hands, he found himself dipping up water
from the canal, carrying it the length of the file, giving it to men
who, each in his turn, dropped his gun to gulp the liquid with the
avidity of panting beasts.
He was no longer afraid of the shrill shrieks of invisible bodies.
His one great longing was to die. He was strongly convinced that he
was going to die; his sufferings were too great; there was no longer
any place in the world for him.
He had to pass by breaches opened in the wall by the bursting
shells. There was no natural object to arrest the eye looking
through these gaps. Hedges and groves had been swept away or
blotted out by the fire of the artillery. He descried at the foot
of the highway near his castle, several of the attacking columns
which had crossed the Marne. The advancing forces were coming
doggedly on, apparently unmoved by the steady, deadly fire of the
Germans. Soon they were rushing forward with leaps and bounds, by
companies, shielding themselves behind bits of upland in bends of
the road, in order to send forth their blasts of death.
The old man was now fired with a desperate resolution;--since he had
to die, let a French ball kill him! And he advanced very erect with
his two pails among those men shooting, lying down. Then, with a
sudden fear, he stood still hanging his head; a second thought had
told him that the bullet which he might receive would be one danger
less for the enemy. It would be better for them to kill the
Germans . . . and he began to cherish the hope that he might get
possession of some weapon from those dying around him, and fall
upon that Junker who had struck him.
He was filling his pails for the third time, and murderously
contemplating the lieutenant's back when something occurred so
absurd and unnatural that it reminded him of the fantastic flash of
the cinematograph;--the officer's head suddenly disappeared; two
jets of blood spurted from his severed neck and his body collapsed
like an empty sack.
At the same time, a cyclone was sweeping the length of the wall,
tearing up groves, overturning cannon and carrying away people in a
whirlwind as though they were dry leaves. He inferred that Death
was now blowing from another direction. Until then, it had come
from the front on the river side, battling with the enemy's line
ensconced behind the walls. Now, with the swiftness of an
atmospheric change, it was blustering from the depths of the park.
A skillful manoeuver of the aggressors, the use of a distant road, a
chance bend in the German line had enabled the French to collect
their cannon in a new position, attacking the occupants of the
castle with a flank movement.
It was a lucky thing for Don Marcelo that he had lingered a few
moments on the bank of the fosse, sheltered by the bulk of the
edifice. The fire of the hidden battery passed the length of the
avenue, carrying off the living, destroying for a second time the
dead, killing horses, breaking the wheels of vehicles and making the
gun carriages fly through the air with the flames of a volcano in
whose red and bluish depths black bodies were leaping. He saw
hundreds of fallen men; he saw disembowelled horses trampling on
their entrails. The death harvest was not being reaped in sheaves;
the entire field was being mowed down with a single flash of the
sickle. And as though the batteries opposite divined the
catastrophe, they redoubled their fire, sending down a torrent of
shells. They fell on all sides. Beyond the castle, at the end of
the park, craters were opening in the woods, vomiting forth the
entire trunks of trees. The projectiles were hurling from their
pits the bodies interred the night before.
Those still alive were firing through the gaps in the walls. Then
they sprang up with the greatest haste. Some grasped their
bayonets, pale, with clamped lips and a mad glare in their eyes;
others turned their backs, running toward the exit from the park,
regardless of the shouts of their officers and the revolver shots
sent after the fugitives.
All this occurred with dizzying rapidity, like a nightmare. On the
other side of the wall came a murmur, swelling in volume, like that
of the sea. Desnoyers heard shouts, and it seemed to him that some
hoarse, discordant voices were singing the Marseillaise. The
machine-guns were working with the swift steadiness of sewing
machines. The attack was going to be opposed with furious
resistance. The Germans, crazed with fury, shot and shot. In one
of the breaches appeared a red kepis followed by legs of the same
color trying to clamber over the ruins. But this vision was
instantly blotted out by the sprinkling from the machine guns,
making the invaders fall in great heaps on the other side of the
wall. Don Marcelo never knew exactly how the change took place.
Suddenly he saw the red trousers within the park. With irresistible
bounds they were springing over the wall, slipping through the
yawning gaps, and darting out from the depths of the woods by
invisible paths. They were little soldiers, husky, panting,
perspiring, with torn cloaks; and mingled with them, in the disorder
of the charge, African marksmen with devilish eyes and foaming
mouths, Zouaves in wide breeches and chasseurs in blue uniforms.
The German officers wanted to die. With upraised swords, after
having exhausted the shots in their revolvers, they advanced upon
their assailants followed by the soldiers who still obeyed them.
There was a scuffle, a wild melee. To the trembling spectator, it
seemed as though the world had fallen into profound silence. The
yells of the combatants, the thud of colliding bodies, the clang of
arms seemed as nothing after the cannon had quieted down. He saw
men pierced through the middle by gun points whose reddened ends
came out through their kidneys; muskets raining hammer-like blows,
adversaries that grappled in hand-to-hand tussles, rolling over and
over on the ground, trying to gain the advantage by kicks and bites.
The mustard-colored fronts had entirely disappeared, and he now saw
only backs of that color fleeing toward the exit, filtering among
the trees, falling midway in their flight when hit by the pursuing
balls. Many of the invaders were unable to chase the fugitives
because they were occupied in repelling with rude thrusts of their
bayonets the bodies falling upon them in agonizing convulsions.
Don Marcelo suddenly found himself in the very thick of these mortal
combats, jumping up and down like a child, waving his hands and
shouting with all his might. When he came to himself again, he was
hugging the grimy head of a young French officer who was looking at
him in astonishment. He probably thought him crazy on receiving his
kisses, on hearing his incoherent torrent of words. Emotionally
exhausted, the worn old man continued to weep after the officer had
freed himself with a jerk. . . . He needed to give vent to his
feelings after so many days of anguished self-control. Vive la
France! . . .
His beloved French were already within the park gates. They were
running, bayonets in hand, in pursuit of the last remnants of the
German battalion trying to escape toward the village. A group of
horsemen passed along the road. They were dragoons coming to
complete the rout. But their horses were fagged out; nothing but
the fever of victory transmitted from man to beast had sustained
their painful pace. One of the equestrians came to a stop near the
entrance of the park, the famished horse eagerly devouring the
herbage while his rider settled down in the saddle as though asleep.
Desnoyers touched him on the hip in order to waken him, but he
immediately rolled off on the opposite side. He was dead, with his
entrails protruding from his body, but swept on with the others, he
had been brought thus far on his steady steed.
Enormous tops of iron and smoke now began falling in the
neighborhood. The German artillery was opening a retaliatory fire
against its lost positions. The advance continued. There passed
toward the North battalions, squadrons and batteries, worn, weary
and grimy, covered with dust and mud, but kindled with an ardor that
galvanized their flagging energy.
The French cannon began thundering on the village side. Bands of
soldiers were exploring the castle and the nearest woods. From the
ruined rooms, from the depths of the cellars, from the clumps of
shrubbery in the park, from the stables and burned garage, came
surging forth men dressed in greenish gray and pointed helmets.
They all threw up their arms, extending their open hands:--
"Kamarades . . . kamarades, non kaput." With the restlessness of
remorse, they were in dread of immediate execution. They had
suddenly lost all their haughtiness on finding that they no longer
had any official powers and were free from discipline. Some of
those who knew a little French, spoke of their wives and children,
in order to soften the enemies that were threatening them with their
bayonets. A brawny Teuton came up to Desnoyers and clapped him on
the back. It was Redbeard. He pressed his heart and then pointed
to the owner of the castle. "Franzosen . . . great friend of the
Franzosen" . . . and he grinned ingratiatingly at his protector.
Don Marcelo remained at the castle until the following morning, and
was astounded to see Georgette and her mother emerge unexpectedly
from the depths of the ruined lodge. They were weeping at the sight
of the French uniforms.
"It could not go on," sobbed the widow. "God does not die."
After a bad night among the ruins, the owner decided to leave
Villeblanche. What was there for him to do now in the destroyed
castle? . . . The presence of so many dead was racking his nerves.
There were hundreds, there were thousands. The soldiers and the
farmers were interring great heaps of them wherever he went, digging
burial trenches close to the castle, in all the avenues of the park,
in the garden paths, around the outbuildings. Even the depths of
the circular lagoon were filled with corpses. How could he ever
live again in that tragic community composed mostly of his
enemies? . . . Farewell forever, castle of Villeblanche!
He turned his steps toward Paris, planning to get there the best way
he could. He came upon corpses everywhere, but they were not all
the gray-green uniform. Many of his countrymen had fallen in the
gallant offensive. Many would still fall in the last throes of the
battle that was going on behind them, agitating the horizon with its
incessant uproar. Everywhere red pantaloons were sticking up out of
the stubble, hobnailed boots glistening in upright position near the
roadside, livid heads, amputated bodies, stray limbs--and, scattered
through this funereal medley, red kepis and Oriental caps, helmets
with tufts of horse hair, twisted swords, broken bayonets, guns and
great mounds of cannon cartridges. Dead horses were strewing the
plain with their swollen carcasses. Artillery wagons with their
charred wood and bent iron frames revealed the tragic moment of the
explosion. Rectangles of overturned earth marked the situation of
the enemy's batteries before their retreat. Amidst the broken
cannons and trucks were cones of carbonized material, the remains of
men and horses burned by the Germans on the night before their
In spite of these barbarian holocausts corpses were every where in
infinite numbers. There seemed to be no end to their number; it
seemed as though the earth had expelled all the bodies that it had
received since the beginning of the world. The sun was impassively
flooding the fields of death with its waves of light. In its
yellowish glow, the pieces of the bayonets, the metal plates, the
fittings of the guns were sparkling like bits of crystal. The damp
night, the rain, the rust of time had not yet modified with their
corrosive action these relics of combat.
But decomposition had begun to set in. Graveyard odors were all
along the road, increasing in intensity as Desnoyers plodded on
toward Paris. Every half hour, the evidence of corruption became
more pronounced--many of the dead on this side of the river having
lain there for three or four days. Bands of crows, at the sound of
his footsteps, rose up, lazily flapping their wings, but returning
soon to blacken the earth, surfeited but not satisfied, having lost
all fear of mankind.
From time to time, the sad pedestrian met living bands of men--
platoons of cavalry, gendarmes, Zouaves and chasseurs encamped
around the ruined farmsteads, exploring the country in pursuit of
German fugitives. Don Marcelo had to explain his business there,
showing the passport that Lacour had given him in order to make his
trip on the military train. Only in this way, could he continue his
journey. These soldiers--many of them slightly wounded--were still
stimulated by victory. They were laughing, telling stories, and
narrating the great dangers which they had escaped a few days
before, always ending with, "We are going to kick them across the
frontier!" . . .
Their indignation broke forth afresh as they looked around at the
blasted towns--farms and single houses, all burned. Like skeletons
of prehistoric beasts, many steel frames twisted by the flames were
scattered over the plains. The brick chimneys of the factories were
either levelled to the ground or, pierced with the round holes made
by shells, were standing up like giant pastoral flutes forced into
Near the ruined villages, the women were removing the earth and
trying to dig burial trenches, but their labor was almost useless
because it required an immense force to inter so many dead. "We are
all going to die after gaining the victory," mused the old man.
"The plague is going to break out among us."
The water of the river must also be contaminated by this contagion;
so when his thirst became intolerable he drank, in preference, from
a nearby pond. . . . But, alas, on raising his head, he saw some
greenish legs on the surface of the shallow water, the boots sunk in
the muddy banks. The head of the German was in the depths of the
He had been trudging on for several hours when he stopped before a
ruined house which he believed that he recognized. Yes, it was the
tavern where he had lunched a few days ago on his way to the castle.
He forced his way in among the blackened walls where a persistent
swarm of flies came buzzing around him. The smell of decomposing
flesh attracted his attention; a leg which looked like a piece of
charred cardboard was wedged in the ruins. Looking at it bitterly
he seemed to hear again the old woman with her grandchildren
clinging to her skirts--"Monsieur, why are the people fleeing? War
only concerns the soldiers. We countryfolk have done no wrong to
anybody, and we ought not to be afraid."
Half an hour later, on descending a hilly path, the traveller had
the most unexpected of encounters. He saw there a taxicab, an
automobile from Paris. The chauffeur was walking tranquilly around
the vehicle as if it were at the cab stand, and he promptly entered
into conversation with this gentleman who appeared to him as
downcast and dirty as a tramp, with half of his livid face
discolored from a blow. He had brought out here in his machine some
Parisians who had wanted to see the battlefield; they were
reporters; and he was waiting there to take them back at nightfall.
Don Marcelo buried his right hand in his pocket. Two hundred francs
if the man would drive him to Paris. The chauffeur declined with
the gravity of a man faithful to his obligations. . . . "Five
hundred?" . . . and he showed his fist bulging with gold coins. The
man's only response was a twirl of the handle which started the
machine to snorting, and away they sped. There was not a battle in
the neighborhood of Paris every day in the year! His other clients
could just wait.
And settling back into the motor-car, Desnoyers saw the horrors of
the battle field flying past at a dizzying speed and disappearing
behind him. He was rolling toward human life . . . he was returning
As they came into Paris, the nearly empty streets seemed to him to
be crowded with people. Never had he seen the city so beautiful.
He whirled through the avenue de l'Opera, whizzed past the place de
la Concorde, and thought he must be dreaming as he realized the
gigantic leap that he had taken within the hour. He compared all
that was now around him with the sights on that plain of death but a
few miles away. No; no, it was not possible. One of the extremes
of this contrast must certainly be false!
The automobile was beginning to slow down; he must be now in the
avenue Victor Hugo. . . . He couldn't wake up. Was that really his
home? . . .
The majestic concierge, unable to understand his forlorn appearance,
greeted him with amazed consternation. "Ah. Monsieur! . . . Where
has Monsieur been?" . . .
"In hell!" muttered Don Marcelo.
His wonderment continued when he found himself actually in his own
apartment, going through its various rooms. He was somebody once
more. The sight of the fruits of his riches and the enjoyment of
home comforts restored his self-respect at the same time that the
contrast recalled to his mind the recollection of all the
humiliations and outrages that he had suffered. . . . Ah, the
scoundrels! . . .
Two mornings later, the door bell rang. A visitor!
There came toward him a soldier--a little soldier of the infantry,
timid, with his kepis in his hand, stuttering excuses in Spanish:--
"I knew that you were here . . . I come to . . ."
That voice? . . . Dragging him from the dark hallway, Don Marcelo
conducted him to the balcony. . . . How handsome he looked! . . .
The kepis was red, but darkened with wear; the cloak, too large, was
torn and darned; the great shoes had a strong smell of leather. Yet
never had his son appeared to him so elegant, so distinguished-
looking as now, fitted out in these rough ready-made clothes.
"You! . . . You! . . ."
The father embraced him convulsively, crying like a child, and
trembling so that he could no longer stand.
He had always hoped that they would finally understand each other.
His blood was coursing through the boy's veins; he was good, with no
other defect than a certain obstinacy. He was excusing him now for
all the past, blaming himself for a great part of it. He had been
"You a soldier!" he kept exclaiming over and over. "You defending
my country, when it is not yours!" . . .
And he kissed him again, receding a few steps so as to get a better
look at him. Decidedly he was more fascinating now in his grotesque
uniform, than when he was so celebrated for his skill as a dancer
and idolized by the women.
When the delighted father was finally able to control his emotion,
his eyes, still filled with tears, glowed with a malignant light. A
spasm of hatred furrowed his face.
"Go," he said simply. "You do not know what war is; I have just
come from it; I have seen it close by. This is not a war like other
wars, with rational enemies; it is a hunt of wild beasts. . . .
Shoot without a scruple against them all. . . . Every one that you
overcome, rids humanity of a dangerous menace."
He hesitated a few seconds, and then added with tragic calm:
"Perhaps you may encounter familiar faces. Family ties are not
always formed to our tastes. Men of your blood are on the other
side. If you see any one of them . . . do not hesitate. Shoot! He
is your enemy. Kill him! . . . Kill him!"
AFTER THE MARNE
At the end of October, the Desnoyers family returned to Paris. Dona
Luisa could no longer live in Biarritz, so far from her husband. In
vain la Romantica discoursed on the dangers of a return. The
Government was still in Bordeaux, the President of the Republic and
the Ministry making only the most hurried apparitions in the
Capital. The course of the war might change at any minute; that
little affair of the Marne was but a momentary relief. . . . But
the good senora, after having read Don Marcelo's letters, opposed an
adamantine will to all contrary suggestions. Besides, she was
thinking of her son, her Julio, now a soldier. . . . She believed
that, by returning to Paris, she might in some ways be more in touch
with him than at this seaside resort near the Spanish frontier.
Chichi also wished to return because Rene was now filling the
greater part of her thoughts. Absence had shown her that she was
really in love with him. Such a long time without seeing her little
sugar soldier! . . . So the family abandoned their hotel life and
returned to the avenue Victor Hugo.
Since the shock of the first September days, Paris had been
gradually changing its aspect. The nearly two million inhabitants
who had been living quietly in their homes without letting
themselves be drawn into the panic, had accepted the victory with
grave serenity. None of them could explain the exact course of the
battle; they would learn all about it when it was entirely finished.
One September Sunday, at the hour when the Parisians are accustomed
to take advantage of the lovely twilight, they had learned from the
newspapers of the great triumph of the Allies and of the great
danger which they had so narrowly escaped. The people were
delighted, but did not, however, abandon their calm demeanor. Six
weeks of war had radically changed the temperament of turbulent and
The victory was slowly restoring the Capital to its former aspect.
A street that was practically deserted a few weeks before was now
filled with transients. The shops were reopening. The neighbors
accustomed to the conventional silence of their deserted apartment
houses, again heard sounds of returning life in the homes above and
Don Marcelo's satisfaction in welcoming his family home was
considerably clouded by the presence of Dona Elena. She was Germany
returning to the encounter, the enemy again established within his
tents. Would he never be able to free himself from this
bondage? . . . She was silent in her brother-in-law's presence
because recent events had rather bewildered her. Her countenance
was stamped with a wondering expression as though she were gazing
at the upsetting of the most elemental physical laws. In reflective
silence she was puzzling over the Marne enigma, unable to understand
how it was that the Germans had not conquered the ground on which
she was treading; and in order to explain this failure, she
resorted to the most absurd suppositions.
One especially engrossing matter was increasing her sadness. Her
sons. . . . What would become of her sons! Don Marcelo had never
told her of his meeting with Captain von Hartrott. He was
maintaining absolute silence about his sojourn at Villeblanche. He
had no desire to recount his adventures at the battle of the Marne.
What was the use of saddening his loved ones with such miseries? . . .
He simply told Dona Luisa, who was alarmed about the possible
fate of the castle, that they would not be able to go there for many
years to come, because the hostilities had rendered it
uninhabitable. A covering of zinc sheeting had been substituted for
the ancient roof in order to prevent further injury from wind and
rain to the wrecked interior. Later on, after peace had been
declared, they would think about its renovation. Just now it had
too many inhabitants. And all the ladies, including Dona Elena,
shuddered in imagining the thousands of buried bodies forming their
ghastly circle around the building. This vision made Frau von
Hartrott again groan, "Ay, my sons!"
Finally, for humanity's sake, her brother-in-law set her mind at
rest regarding the fate of one of them, the Captain von Hartrott.
He was in perfect health at the beginning of the battle. He knew
that this was so from a friend who had conversed with him . . . and
he did not wish to talk further about him.
Dona Luisa was spending a part of each day in the churches, trying
to quiet her uneasiness with prayer. These petitions were no longer
vague and generous for the fate of millions of unknown men, for the
victory of an entire people. With maternal self-centredness they
were focussed on one single person--her son, who was a soldier like
the others, and perhaps at this very moment was exposed to the
greatest danger. The tears that he had cost her! . . . She had
implored that he and his father might come to understand each other,
and finally just as God was miraculously granting her supplication,
Julio had taken himself off to the field of death.
Her entreaties never went alone to the throne of grace. Someone was
praying near her, formulating identical requests. The tearful eyes
of her sister were raised at the same time as hers to the figure of
the crucified Savior. "Lord, save my son! . . . When uttering
these words, Dona Luisa always saw Julio as he looked in a pale
photograph which he had sent his father from the trenches--with
kepis and military cloak, a gun in his right hand, and his face
shadowed by a growing beard. "O Lord have mercy upon us!" . . . and
Dona Elena was at the same time contemplating a group of officers
with helmets and reseda uniforms reinforced with leather pouches for
the revolver, field glasses and maps, with sword-belt of the same
Oftentimes when Don Marcelo saw them setting forth together toward
Saint Honore d'Eylau, he would wax very indignant.
"They are juggling with God. . . . This is most unreasonable! How
could He grant such contrary petitions? . . . Ah, these women!"
And then, with that superstition which danger awakens, he began to
fear that his sister-in-law might cause some grave disaster to his
son. Divinity, fatigued with so many contradictory prayers was
going to turn His back and not listen to any of them. Why did not
this fatal woman take herself off? . . .
He felt as exasperated at her presence in his home as he had at the
beginning of hostilities. Dona Luisa was still innocently repeating
her sister's statements, submitting them to the superior criticism
of her husband. In this way, Don Marcelo had learned that the
victory of the Marne had never really happened; it was an invention
of the allies. The German generals had deemed it prudent to retire
through profound strategic foresight, deferring till a little later
the conquest of Paris, and the French had done nothing but follow
them over the ground which they had left free. That was all. She
knew the opinions of military men of neutral countries; she had been
talking in Biarritz with some people of unusual intelligence; she
knew what the German papers were saying about it. Nobody over there
believed that yarn about the Marne. The people did not even know
that there had been such a battle.
"Your sister said that?" interrupted Desnoyers, pale with wrath and
But he could do nothing but keep on longing for the bodily
transformation of this enemy planted under his roof. Ay, if she
could only be changed into a man! If only the evil genius of her
husband could but take her place for a brief half hour! . . .
"But the war still goes on," said Dona Luisa in artless perplexity.
"The enemy is still in France. . . . What good did the battle of
the Marne do?"
She accepted his explanations with intelligent noddings of the head,
seeming to take them all in, and an hour afterwards would be
repeating the same doubts.
She, nevertheless, began to evince a mute hostility toward her
sister. Until now, she had been tolerating her enthusiasms in favor
of her husband's country because she always considered family ties
of more importance than the rivalries of nations. Just because
Desnoyers happened to be a Frenchman and Karl a German, she was not
going to quarrel with Elena. But suddenly this forbearance had
vanished. Her son was now in danger. . . . Better that all the von
Hartrotts should die than that Julio should receive the most
insignificant wound! . . . She began to share the bellicose
sentiments of her daughter, recognizing in her an exceptional talent
for appraising events, and now desiring all of Chichi's dagger
thrusts to be converted into reality.
Fortunately La Romantica took herself off before this antipathy
crystallized. She was accustomed to pass the afternoons somewhere
outside, and on her return would repeat the news gleaned from
friends unknown to the rest of the family.
This made Don Marcelo wax very indignant because of the spies still
hidden in Paris. What mysterious world was his sister-in-law
frequenting? . . .
Suddenly she announced that she was leaving the following morning;
she had obtained a passport to Switzerland, and from there she would
go to Germany. It was high time for her to be returning to her own;
she was most appreciative of the hospitality shown her by the
family. . . . And Desnoyers bade her good-bye with aggressive
irony. His regards to von Hartrott; he was hoping to pay him a
visit in Berlin as soon as possible.
One morning Dona Luisa, instead of entering the neighboring church
as usual, continued on to the rue de la Pompe, pleased at the
thought of seeing the studio once more. It seemed to her that in
this way she might put herself more closely in touch with her son.
This would be a new pleasure, even greater than poring over his
photograph or re-reading his last letter.
She was hoping to meet Argensola, the friend of good counsels, for
she knew that he was still living in the studio. Twice he had come
to see her by the service stairway as in the old days, but she had
As she went up in the elevator, her heart was palpitating with
pleasure and distress. It occurred to the good lady that the
"foolish virgins" must have had feelings like this when for the
first time they fell from the heights of virtue.
The tears came to her eyes when she beheld the room whose
furnishings and pictures so vividly recalled the absent. Argensola
hastened from the door at the end of the room, agitated, confused,
and greeting her with expressions of welcome at the same time that
he was putting sundry objects out of sight. A woman's sweater lying
on the divan, he covered with a piece of Oriental drapery--a hat
trimmed with flowers, he sent flying into a far-away corner. Dona
Luisa fancied that she saw a bit of gauzy feminine negligee
embroidered in pink, flitting past the window frame. Upon the divan
were two big coffee cups and bits of toast evidently left from a
double breakfast. These artists! . . . The same as her son! And
she was moved to compassion over the bad life of Julio's counsellor.
"My honored Dona Luisa. . . . My DEAR Madame Desnoyers. . . ."
He was speaking in French and at the top of his voice, looking
frantically at the door through which the white and rosy garments
had flitted. He was trembling at the thought that his hidden
companion, not understanding the situation, might in a jealous fit,
compromise him by a sudden apparition.
Then he spoke to his unexpected guest about the soldier, exchanging
news with her. Dona Luisa repeated almost word for word the
paragraphs of his letters so frequently read. Argensola modestly
refrained from displaying his; the two friends were accustomed to an
epistolary style which would have made the good lady blush.
"A valiant man!" affirmed the Spaniard proudly, looking upon the
deeds of his comrade as though they were his own. "A true hero! and
I, Madame Desnoyers, know something about what that means. . . .
His chiefs know how to appreciate him." . . .
Julio was a sergeant after having been only two months in the
campaign. The captain of his company and the other officials of the
regiment belonged to the fencing club in which he had had so many
"What a career!" he enthused. "He is one of those who in youth
reach the highest ranks, like the Generals of the Revolution. . . .
And what wonders he has accomplished!"
The budding officer had merely referred in the most casual way to
some of exploits, with the indifference of one accustomed to danger
and expecting the same attitude from his comrades; but his chum
exaggerated them, enlarging upon them as though they were the
culminating events of the war. He had carried an order across an
infernal fire, after three messengers, trying to accomplish the same
feat, had fallen dead. He had been the first to attack many
trenches and had saved many of his comrades by means of the blows
from his bayonet and hand to hand encounters. Whenever his superior
officers needed a reliable man, they invariably said, "Let Sergeant
Desnoyers be called!"
He rattled off all this as though he had witnessed it, as if he had
just come from the seat of war, making Dona Luisa tremble and pour
forth tears of joy mingled with fear over the glories and dangers of
her son. That Argensola certainly possessed the gift of affecting
his hearers by the realism with which he told his stories!
In gratitude for these eulogies, she felt that she ought to show
some interest in his affairs. . . . What had he been doing of late?
"I, Madame, have been where I ought to be. I have not budged from
this spot. I have witnessed the siege of Paris."
In vain, his reason protested against the inexactitude of that word,
"siege." Under the influence of his readings about the war of 1870,
he had classed as a siege all those events which had developed near
Paris during the course of the battle of the Marne.
He pointed modestly to a diploma in a gold frame hanging above the
piano against a tricolored flag. It was one of the papers sold in
the streets, a certificate of residence in the Capital during the
week of danger. He had filled in the blanks with his name and
description of his person; and at the foot were very conspicuous the
signatures of two residents of the rue de la Pompe--a tavern-keeper,
and a friend of the concierge. The district Commissary of Police,
with stamp and seal, had guaranteed the respectability of these
honorable witnesses. Nobody could remain in doubt, after such
precautions, as to whether he had or had not witnessed the siege of
Paris. He had such incredulous friends! . . .
In order to bring the scene more dramatically before his amiable
listener, he recalled the most striking of his impressions for her
special benefit. Once, in broad daylight, he had seen a flock of
sheep in the boulevard near the Madeleine. Their tread had
resounded through the deserted streets like echoes from the city of
the dead. He was the only pedestrian on the sidewalks thronged with
cats and dogs.
His military recollections excited him like tales of glory.
"I have seen the march of the soldiers from Morocco. . . . I have
seen the Zouaves in automobiles!"
The very night that Julio had gone to Bordeaux, he had wandered
around till sunrise, traversing half of Paris, from the Lion of
Belfort, to the Gare de l'Est. Twenty thousand men, with all their
campaign outfit, coming from Morocco, had disembarked at Marseilles
and arrived at the Capital, making part of the trip by rail and the
rest afoot. They had come to take part in the great battle then
beginning. They were troops composed of Europeans and Africans.
The vanguard, on entering through the Orleans gate, had swung into
rhythmic pace, thus crossing half Paris toward the Gare de l'Est
where the trains were waiting for them.
The people of Paris had seen squadrons from Tunis with theatrical
uniforms, mounted on horses, nervous and fleet, Moors with yellow
turbans, Senegalese with black faces and scarlet caps, colonial
artillerymen, and light infantry from Africa. These were
professional warriors, soldiers who in times of peace, led a life of
continual fighting in the colonies--men with energetic profiles,
bronzed faces and the eyes of beasts of prey. They had remained
motionlesss in the streets for hours at a time, until room could be
found for them in the military trains. . . . And Argensola had
followed this armed, impassive mass of humanity from the boulevards,
talking with the officials, and listening to the primitive cries of
the African warriors who had never seen Paris, and who passed
through it without curiosity, asking where the enemy was.
They had arived in time to attack von Kluck on the banks of the
Ourq, obliging him to fall back or be completely overwhelmed.
A fact which Argensola did not relate to his sympathetic guest was
that his nocturnal excursion the entire length of this division of
the army had been accompanied by the amiable damsel within, and two
other friends--an enthusiastic and generous coterie, distributing
flowers and kisses to the swarthy soldiers, and laughing at their
consternation and gleaming white teeth.
Another day he had seen the most extraordinary of all the spectacles
of the war. All the taxicabs, some two thousand vehicles, conveying
battalions of Zouaves, eight men to a motor car, had gone rolling
past him at full speed, bristling with guns and red caps. They had
presented a most picturesque train in the boulevards, like a kind of
interminable wedding procession. And these soldiers got out of the
automobiles on the very edge of the battle field, opening fire the
instant that they leaped from the steps. Gallieni had launched all
the men who knew how to handle a gun against the extreme right of
the adversary at the supreme moment when the most insignificant
weight might tip the scales in favor of the victory which was
hanging in the balance. The clerks and secretaries of the military
offices, the orderlies of the government and the civil police, all
had marched to give that final push, forming a mass of heterogenous
And one Sunday afternoon when, with his three companions of the
"siege" he was strolling with thousands of other Parisians through
the Bois de Boulogne, he had learned from the extras that the combat
which had developed so near to the city was turning into a great
battle, a victory.
"I have seen much, Madame Desnoyers. . . . I can relate great
And she agreed with him. Of course Argensola had seen much! . . .
And on taking her departure, she offered him all the assistance in
her power. He was the friend of her son, and she was used to his
petitions. Times had changed; Don Marcelo's generosity now knew no
bounds . . . but the Bohemian interrupted her with a lordly gesture;
he was living in luxury. Julio had made him his trustee. The draft
from America had been honored by the bank as a deposit, and he had
the use of the interest in accordance with the regulations of the
moratorium. His friend was sending him regularly whatever money was
needed for household expenses. Never had he been in such prosperous
condition. War had its good side, too . . . but not wishing to
break away from old customs, he announced that once more he would
mount the service stairs in order to bear away a basket of bottles.
After her sister's departure, Dona Luisa went alone to the churches
until Chichi in an outburst of devotional ardor, suddenly surprised
her with the announcement:
"Mama, I am going with you!"
The new devotee was no longer agitating the household by her
rollicking, boyish joy; she was no longer threatening the enemy with
imaginary dagger thrusts. She was pale, and with dark circles under
her eyes. Her head was drooping as though weighed down with a set
of serious, entirely new thoughts on the other side of her forehead.
Dona Luisa observed her in the church with an almost indignant
jealousy. Her headstrong child's eyes were moist, and she was
praying as fervently as the mother . . . but it was surely not for
her brother. Julio had passed to second place in her remembrance.
Another man was now completely filling her thoughts.
The last of the Lacours was no longer a simple soldier, nor was he
now in Paris. Upon her return from Biarritz, Chichi had listened
anxiously to the reports from her little sugar soldier. Throbbing
with eagerness, she wanted to know all about the dangers which he
had been experiencing; and the young warrior "in the auxiliary
service" told her of his restlessness in the office during the
interminable days in which the troops were battling around Paris,
hearing afar off the boom of the artillery. His father had wished
to take him with him to Bordeaux, but the administrative confusion
of the last hour had kept him in the capital.
He had done something more. On the day of the great crisis, when
the acting governor had sent out all the available men in
automobiles, he had, unasked, seized a gun and occupied a motor with
others from his office. He had not seen anything more than smoke,
burning houses, and wounded men. Not a single German had passed
before his eyes, excepting a band of Uhlan prisoners, but for some
hours he had been shooting on the edge of the road . . . and nothing
For a while, that was enough for Chichi. She felt very proud to be
the betrothed of a hero of the Marne, even though his intervention
had lasted but a few hours. In a few days, however, her enthusiasm
became rather clouded.
It was becoming annoying to stroll through the streets with Rene, a
simple soldier and in the auxiliary service, besides. . . . The
women of the town, excited by the recollection of their men fighting
at the front, or clad in mourning because of the death of some loved
one, would look at them with aggressive insolence. The refinement
and elegance of the Republican Prince seemed to irritate them.
Several times, she overheard uncomplimentary words hurled against
The fact that her brother who was not French was in the thick of the
fighting, made the Lacour situation still more intolerable. She had
an "embusque" for a lover. How her friends would laugh at her! . . .
The senator's son soon read her thoughts and began to lose some of
his smiling serenity. For three days he did not present himself at
the Desnoyers' home, and they all supposed that he was detained by
work at the office.
One morning as Chichi was going toward the Bois de Boulogne,
escorted by one of the nut-brown maids, she noticed a soldier coming
toward her. He was wearing a bright uniform of the new gray-blue,
the "horizon blue" just adopted by the French army. The chin strap
of his kepi was gilt, and on his sleeve there was a little strip of
gold. His smile, his outstretched hands, the confidence with which
he advanced toward her made her recognize him. Rene an officer!
Her betrothed a sub-lieutenant!
"Yes, of course! I could do nothing else. . . . I had heard
Without his father's knowledge, and assisted by his friends, he had
in a few days, wrought this wonderful transformation. As a graduate
of the Ecole Centrale, he held the rank of a sub-lieutenant of the
Reserve Artillery, and he had requested to be sent to the front.
Good-bye to the auxiliary service! . . . Within two days, he was
going to start for the war.
"You have done this!" exclaimed Chichi. "You have done this!"
Although very pale, she gazed fondly at him with her great eyes--
eyes that seemed to devour him with admiration.
"Come here, my poor boy. . . . Come here, my sweet little
soldier! . . . I owe you something."
And turning her back on the maid, she asked him to come with her
round the corner. It was just the same there. The cross street was
just as thronged as the avenue. But what did she care for the stare
of the curious! Rapturously she flung her arms around his neck,
blind and insensible to everything and everybody but him.
"There. . . . There!" And she planted on his face two vehement,
sonorous, aggressive kisses.
Then, trembling and shuddering, she suddenly weakened, and fumbling
for her handkerchief, broke down in desperate weeping.
IN THE STUDIO
Upon opening the studio door one afternoon, Argensola stood
motionless with surprise, as though rooted to the ground.
An old gentleman was greeting him with an amiable smile.
"I am the father of Julio."
And he walked into the apartment with the confidence of a man
entirely familiar with his surroundings.
By good luck, the artist was alone, and was not obliged to tear
frantically from one end of the room to the other, hiding the traces
of convivial company; but he was a little slow in regaining his
self-control. He had heard so much about Don Marcelo and his bad
temper, that he was very uncomfortable at this unexpected appearance
in the studio. . . . What could the fearful man want?
His tranquillity was restored after a furtive, appraising glance.
His friend's father had aged greatly since the beginning of the war.
He no longer had that air of tenacity and ill-humor that had made
him unapproachable. His eyes were sparkling with childish glee; his
hands were trembling slightly, and his back was bent. Argensola,
who had always dodged him in the street and had thrilled with fear
when sneaking up the stairway in the avenue home, now felt a sudden
confidence. The transformed old man was beaming on him like a
comrade, and making excuses to justify his visit.
He had wished to see his son's home. Poor old man! He was drawn
thither by the same attraction which leads the lover to lessen his
solitude by haunting the places that his beloved has frequented.
The letters from Julio were not enough; he needed to see his old
abode, to be on familiar terms with the objects which had surrounded
him, to breathe the same air, to chat with the young man who was his
His fatherly glance now included Argensola. . . . "A very
interesting fellow, that Argensola!" And as he thought this, he
forgot completely that, without knowing him, he had been accustomed
to refer to him as "shameless," just because he was sharing his
son's prodigal life.
Desnoyers' glance roamed delightedly around the studio. He knew
well these tapestries and furnishings, all the decorations of the
former owner. He easily remembered everything that he had ever
bought, in spite of the fact that they were so many. His eyes then
sought the personal effects, everything that would call the absent
occupant to mind; and he pored over the miserably executed
paintings, the unfinished dabs which filled all the corners.
Were they all Julio's? . . . Many of the canvases belonged to
Argensola, but affected by the old man's emotion, the artist
displayed a marvellous generosity. Yes, everything was Julio's
handiwork . . . and the father went from canvas to canvas, halting
admiringly before the vaguest daubs as though he could almost detect
signs of genius in their nebulous confusion.
"You think he has talent, really?" he asked in a tone that implored
a favorable reply. "I always thought him very intelligent . . . a
little of the diable, perhaps, but character changes with
years. . . . Now he is an altogether different man."
And he almost wept at hearing the Spaniard, with his ready,
enthusiastic speech, lauding the departed "diable," graphically
setting forth the way in which his great genius was going to take
the world when his turn should come.
The painter of souls finally worked himself up into feeling as much
affected as the father, and began to admire this old Frenchman with
a certain remorse, not wishing to remember how he had ranted against
him not so very long ago. What injustice! . . .
Don Marcelo clasped his hand like an old comrade. All of his son's
friends were his friends. He knew the life that young men lived. . . .
If at any time, he should be in any difficulties, if he needed
an allowance so as to keep on with his painting--there he was,
anxious to help him! He then and there invited him to dine at his
home that very night, and if he would care to come every evening, so
much the better. He would eat a family dinner, entirely informal.
War had brought about a great many changes, but he would always be
as welcome to the intimacy of the hearth as though he were in his
Then he spoke of Spain, in order to place himself on a more
congenial footing with the artist. He had never been there but
once, and then only for a short time; but after the war, he was
going to know it better. His father-in-law was a Spaniard, his wife
had Spanish blood, and in his home the language of the family was
always Castilian. Ah, Spain, the country with a noble past and
illustrious men! . . .
Argensola had a strong suspicion that if he had been a native of any
other land, the old gentleman would have praised it in the same way.
All this affection was but a reflex of his love for his absent son,
but it so pleased the impressionable fellow that he almost embraced
Don Marcelo when he took his departure.
After that, his visits to the studio were very frequent. The artist
was obliged to recommend his friends to take a good long walk after
lunch, abstaining from reappearing in the rue de la Pompe until
nightfall. Sometimes, however, Don Marcelo would unexpectedly
present himself in the morning, and then the soulful impressionist
would have to scurry from place to place, hiding here, concealing
there, in order that his workroom should preserve its appearance of
"Youth . . . youth!" the vistor would murmur with a smile of
And he actually had to make an effort to recall the dignity of his
years, in order not to ask Argensola to present him to the fair
fugitives whose presence he suspected in the interior rooms.
Perhaps they had been his boy's friends, too. They represented a
part of his past, anyway, and that was enough to make him presume
that they had great charms which made them interesting.
These surprises, with their upsetting consequences, finally made the
painter rather regret this new friendship; and the invitations to
dinner which he was constantly receiving bored him, too. He found
the Desnoyers table most excellent, but too tedious--for the father
and mother could talk of nothing but their absent son. Chichi
scarcely looked at her brother's friend. Her attention was entirely
concentrated on the war. The irregularity in the mails was
exasperating her so that she began composing protests to the
government whenever a few days passed by without bringing any letter
from sub-Lieutenant Lacour.
Argensola excused himself on various pretexts from continuing to
dine in the avenue Victor Hugo. It pleased him far more to haunt
the cheap restaurants with his female flock. His host accepted his
negatives with good-natured resignation.
"Not to-day, either?"
And in order to compensate for his guest's non-appearance, he would
present himself at the studio earlier than ever on the day
It was an exquisite pleasure for the doting father to let the time
slip by seated on the divan which still seemed to guard the very
hollow made by Julio's body, gazing at the canvases covered with
color by his brush, toasting his toes by the beat of a stove which
roared so cosily in the profound, conventual silence. It certainly
was an agreeable refuge, full of memories in the midst of monotonous
Paris so saddened by the war that he could not meet a friend who was
not preoccupied with his own troubles.
His former purchasing dissipations had now lost all charm for him.
The Hotel Drouot no longer tempted him. At that time, the goods of
German residents, seized by the government, were being auctioned
off;--a felicitous retaliation for the enforced journey which the
fittings of the castle of Villeblanche had taken on the road to
Berlin; but the agents told him in vain of the few competitors which
he would now meet. He no longer felt attracted by these
extraordinary bargains. Why buy anything more? . . . Of what use
was such useless stuff? Whenever he thought of the hard life of
millions of men in the open field, he felt a longing to lead an
ascetic life. He was beginning to hate the ostentatious splendors
of his home on the avenue Victor Hugo. He now recalled without a
regretful pang, the destruction of the castle. No, he was far
better off there . . . and "there" was always the studio of Julio.
Argensola began to form the habit of working in the presence of Don
Marcelo. He knew that the resolute soul abominated inactive people,
so, under the contagious influence of dominant will-power, he began
several new pieces. Desnoyers would follow with interest the
motions of his brush and accept all the explanations of the soulful
delineator. For himself, he always preferred the old masters, and
in his bargains had acquired the work of many a dead artist; but the
fact that Julio had thought as his partner did was now enough for
the devotee of the antique and made him admit humbly all the
Spaniard's superior theories.
The artist's laborious zeal was always of short duration. After a
few moments, he always found that he preferred to rest on the divan
and converse with his guest.
The first subject, of course, was the absentee. They would repeat
fragments of the letters they had received, and would speak of the
past with the most discreet allusions. The painter described
Julio's life before the war as an existence dedicated completely to
art. The father ignored the inexactitude of such words, and
gratefully accepted the lie as a proof of friendship. Argensola was
such a clever comrade, never, in his loftiest verbal flights, making
the slightest reference to Madame Laurier.
The old gentleman was often thinking about her nowadays, for he had
seen her in the street giving her arm to her husband, now recovered
from his wounds. The illustrious Lacour had informed him with great
satisfaction of their reconciliation. The engineer had lost but one
eye. Now he was again at the head of his factory requisitioned by
the government for the manufacture of shells. He was a Captain, and
was wearing two decorations of honor. The senator did not know
exactly how this unexpected agreement had come about. He had one
day seen them coming home together, looking affectionately at each
other, in complete oblivion of the past.
"Who remembers things that happened before the war said the politic
sage. "They and their friends have completely forgotten all about
their divorce. Nowadays we are all living a new existence. . . . I
believe that the two are happier than ever before."
Desnoyers had had a presentiment of this happiness when he saw them
together. And the man of inflexible morality who was, the year
before, anathematizing his son's behavior toward Laurier,
considering it the most unpardonable of his adventures, now felt a
certain indignation in seeing Marguerite devoted to her husband, and
talking to him with such affectionate interest. This matrimonial
felicity seemed to him like the basest ingratitude. A woman who had
had such an influence over the life of Julio! . . . Could she thus
easily forget her love? . . .
The two had passed on as though they did not recognize him. Perhaps
Captain Laurier did not see very clearly, but she had looked at him
frankly and then hastily averted her eyes so as to evade his
greeting. . . . The old man felt sad over such indifference, not on
his own account, but on his son's. Poor Julio! . . . The unbending
parent, in complete mental immorality, found himself lamenting this
indifference as something monstrous.
The war was the other topic of conversation during the afternoons
passed in the studio. Argensola was not now stuffing his pockets
with printed sheets as at the beginning of hostilities. A serene
and resigned calm had succeeded the excitement of those first
moments when the people were daily looking for miraculous
interventions. All the periodicals were saying about the same
thing. He was content with the official report, and he had learned
to wait for that document without impatience, foreseeing that with
but few exceptions, it would say the same thing as the day before.
The fever of the first months, with its illusions and optimisms, now
appeared to Argensola somewhat chimerical. Those not actually
engaged in the war were returning gradually to their habitual
occupations. Life had recovered its regular rhythm. "One must
live!" said the people, and the struggle for existence filled their
thoughts with its immediate urgency. Those whose relatives were in
the army, were still thinking of them, but their occupations were so
blunting the edge of memory, that they were becoming accustomed to
their absence, regarding the unusual as the normal condition. At
first, the war made sleep out of the question, food impossible to
swallow, and embittered every pleasure with its funereal pall. Now
the shops were slowly opening, money was in circulation, and people
were able to laugh; they talked of the great calamity, but only at
certain hours, as something that was going to be long, very long and
would exact great resignation to its inevitable fatalism.
"Humanity accustoms itself easily to trouble," said Argensola,
"provided that the trouble lasts long enough. . . . In this lies
Don Marcelo was not in sympathy with the general resignation. The
war was going to be much shorter than they were all imagining. His
enthusiasm had settled on a speedy termination;--within the next
three months, the next Spring probably; if peace were not declared
in the Spring, it surely would be in the Summer.
A new talker took part in these conversations. Desnoyers had become
acquainted with the Russian neighbor of whom Argensola had so
frequently spoken. Since this odd personage had also known his son,
that was enough to make Tchernoff arouse his interest.
In normal times, he would have kept him at a distance. The
millionaire was a great believer in law and order. He abominated
revolutionists, with the instinctive fear of all the rich who have
built up a fortune and remember their humble beginnings.
Tchernoff's socialism and nationality brought vividly to his mind a
series of feverish images--bombs, daggers, stabbings, deserved
expiations on the gallows, and exile to Siberia. No, he was not
desirable as a friend. . . .
But now Don Marcelo was experiencing an abrupt reversal of his
convictions regarding alien ideas. He had seen so much! . . . The
revolting proceedings of the invasion, the unscrupulous methods of
the German chiefs, the tranquillity with which their submarines were
sinking boats filled with defenseless passengers, the deeds of the
aviators who were hurling bombs upon unguarded cities, destroying
women and children--all this was causing the events of revolutionary
terrorism which, years ago, used to arouse his wrath, to sink into
"And to think," he said "that we used to be as infuriated as though
the world were coming to an end, just because someone threw a bomb
at a grandee!"
Those titled victims had had certain reprehensible qualities which
had justified their execution. They had died in consequence of acts
which they undertook, knowing well what the punishment would be.
They had brought retribution on themselves without trying to evade
it, rarely taking any precautions. While the terrorists of this
war! . . .
With the violence of his imperious character, the old conservative
now swung to the opposite extreme.
"The true anarchists are yet on top," he said with an ironical
laugh. "Those who terrified us formerly, all put together, were but
a few miserable creatures. . . . In a few seconds, these of our day
kill more innocent people than those others did in thirty years."
The gentleness of Tchernoff, his original ideas, his incoherencies
of thought, bounding from reflection to word without any
preparation, finally won Don Marcelo so completely over that he
formed the habit of consulting him about all his doubts. His
admiration made him, too, overlook the source of certain bottles
with which Argensola sometimes treated his neighbor. He was
delighted to have Tchernoff consume these souvenirs of the time when
he was living at swords' points with his son.
After sampling the wine from the avenue Victor Hugo, the Russian
would indulge in a visionary loquacity similar to that of the night
when he evoked the fantastic cavalcade of the four horsemen of the
What his new convert most admired was his facility for making things
clear, and fixing them in the imagination. The battle of the Marne
with its subsequent combats and the course of both armies were
events easily explained. . . . If the French only had not been so
fatigued after their triumph of the Marne! . . .
"But human powers," continued Tchernoff, "have their limits, and the
French soldier, with all his enthusiasm, is a man like the rest. In
the first place, the most rapid of marches from the East to the
North, in order to resist the invasion of Belgium; then the combats;
then the swift retreat that they might not be surrounded; finally a
seven days' battle--and all this in a period of three weeks, no
more. . . . In their moment of triumph, the victors lacked the legs
to follow up their advantage, and they lacked the cavalry to pursue
the fugitives. Their beasts were even more exhausted than the men.
When those who were retreating found that they were being spurred on
with lessening tenacity, they had stretched themselves, half-dead
with fatigue, on the field, excavating the ground and forming a
refuge for themselves. The French also flung themselves down,
scraping the soil together so as not to lose what they had
gained. . . . And in this way began the war of the trenches."
Then each line, with the intention of wrapping itself around that of
the enemy, had gone on prolonging itself toward the Northeast, and
from these successive stretchings had resulted the double course
toward the sea--forming the greatest battle front ever known to
When Don Marcelo with optimistic enthusiasm announced the end of the
war in the following Spring or Summer--in four months at the
outside--the Russian shook his head.
"It will be long . . . very long. It is a new war, the genuine
modern warfare. The Germans began hostilities in the old way as
though they had observed nothing since 1870--a war of involved
movements, of battles in the open field, the same as Moltke might
have planned, imitating Napoleon. They were desirous of bringing it
to a speedy conclusion, and were sure of triumph. Why employ new
methods? . . . But the encounter of the Marne twisted their plans,
making them shift from the aggressive to the defensive. They then
brought into service all that the war staff had learned in the
campaigns of the Japanese and Russians, beginning the war of the
trenches, the subterranean struggle which is the logical outcome of
the reach and number of shots of the modern armament. The conquest
of half a mile of territory to-day stands for more than did the
assault of a stone fortress a century ago. Neither side is going to
make any headway for a long time. Perhaps they may never make a
definite advance. The war is bound to be long and tedious, like the
athletic conquests between opponents who are equally matched."
"But it will have to come to an end, sometime," interpolated
"Undoubtedly, but who knows when? . . . And in what condition will
they both be when it is all over?" . . .
He was counting upon a rapid finale when it was least expected,
through the exhaustion of one of the contestants, carefully
dissimulated until the last moment.
"Germany will be vanquished," he added with firm conviction. "I do
not know when nor how, but she will fall logically. She failed in
her master-stroke in not entering Paris and overcoming its
opposition. All the trumps in her pack of cards were then played.
She did not win, but continues playing the game because she holds
many cards, and she will prolong it for a long time to come. . . .
But what she could not do at first, she will never be able to do."
For Tchernoff, the final defeat did not mean the destruction of
Germany nor the annihilation of the German people.
"Excessive patriotism irritates me," he pursued. "Hearing people
form plans for the definite extinction of Germany seems to me like
listening to the Pan-Germanists of Berlin when they talk of dividing
up the continents."
Then he summed up his opinion.
"Imperialism will have to be crushed for the sake of the
tranquillity of the world; the great war machine which menaces the
peace of nations will have to be suppressed. Since 1870, we have
all been living in dread of it. For forty years, the war has been
averted, but in all that time, what apprehension!" . . .
What was most irritating Tchernoff was the moral lesson born of this
situation which had ended by overwhelming the world--the
glorification of power, the sanctification of success, the triumph
of materialism, the respect for the accomplished fact, the mockery
of the noblest sentiments as though they were merely sonorous and
absurd phrases, the reversal of moral values . . . a philosophy of
bandits which pretended to be the last word of progress, and was no
more than a return to despotism, violence, and the barbarity of the
most primitive epochs of history.
While he was longing for the suppression of the representatives of
this tendency, he would not, therefore, demand the extermination of
the German people.
"This nation has great merits jumbled with bad conditions inherited
from a not far-distant, barbarous past. It possesses the genius of
organization and work, and is able to lend great service to
humanity. . . . But first it is necessary to give it a douche--the
douche of downfall. The Germans are mad with pride and their
madness threatens the security of the world. When those who have
poisoned them with the illusion of universal hegemony have
disappeared, when misfortune has freshened their imagination and
transformed them into a community of humans, neither superior nor
inferior to the rest of mankind, they will become a tolerant people,
useful . . . and who knows but they may even prove sympathetic!"
According to Tchernoff, there was not in existence to-day a more
dangerous nation. Its political organization was converting it into
a warrior horde, educated by kicks and submitted to continual
humiliations in order that the willpower which always resists
discipline might be completely nullified.
"It is a nation where all receive blows and desire to give them to
those lower down. The kick that the Kaiser gives is transmitted
from back to back down to the lowest rung of the social ladder. The
blows begin in the school and are continued in the barracks, forming
part of the education. The apprenticeship of the Prussian Crown
Princes has always consisted in receiving fisticuffs and cowhidings
from their progenitor, the king. The Kaiser beats his children, the
officer his soldiers, the father his wife and children, the
schoolmaster his pupils, and when the superior is not able to give
blows, he subjects those under him to the torment of moral insult."
On this account, when they abandoned their ordinary avocations,
taking up arms in order to fall upon another human group, they did
so with implacable ferocity.
"Each one of them," continued the Russian, "carries on his back the
marks of kicks, and when his turn comes, he seeks consolation in
passing them on to the unhappy creatures whom war puts into his
power. This nation of war-lords, as they love to call themselves,
aspires to lordship, but outside of the country. Within it, are the
ones who least appreciate human dignity and, therefore, long
vehemently to spread their dominant will over the face of the earth,
passing from lackeys to lords."
Suddenly Don Marcelo stopped going with such frequency to the
studio. He was now haunting the home and office of the senator,
because this friend had upset his tranquillity. Lacour had been
much depressed since the heir to the family glory had broken through
the protecting paternal net in order to go to war.
One night, while dining with the Desnoyers family, an idea popped
into his head which filled him with delight. "Would you like to see
your son?" He needed to see Rene and had begun negotiating for a
permit from headquarters which would allow him to visit the front.
His son belonged to the same army division as Julio; perhaps their
camps were rather far apart, but an automobile makes many
revolutions before it reaches the end of its journey.
It was not necessary to say more. Desnoyers instantly felt the most
overmastering desire to see his boy, since, for so many months, he
had had to content himself with reading his letters and studying the
snap shot which one of his comrades had made of his soldier son.
From that time on, he besieged the senator as though he were a
political supporter desiring an office. He visited him in the
mornings in his home, invited him to dinner every evening, and
hunted him down in the salons of the Luxembourg. Before the first
word of greeting could be exchanged, his eyes were formulating the
same interrogation. . . . "When will you get that permit?"
The great man could only reply by lamenting the indifference of the
military department toward the civilian element; it always had been
inimical toward parliamentarism.
"Besides, Joffre is showing himself most unapproachable; he does not
encourage the curious. . . . To-morrow I will see the President."
A few days later, he arrived at the house in the avenue Victor Hugo,
with an expression of radiant satisfaction that filled Don Marcelo
"It has come?"
"It has come. . . . We start the day after to-morrow."
Desnoyers went the following afternoon to the studio in the rue de
"I am going to-morrow!"
The artist was very eager to accompany him. Would it not be
possible for him to go, too, as secretary to the senator? . . . Don
Marcelo smiled benevolently. The authorization was only for Lacour
and one companion. He was the one who was going to pose as
secretary, valet or utility man to his future relative-in-law.
At the end of the afternoon, he left the studio, accompanied to the
elevator by the lamentations of Argensola. To think that he could
not join that expedition! . . . He believed that he had lost the
opportunity to paint his masterpiece.
Just outside of his home, he met Tchernoff. Don Marcelo was in high
good humor. The certainty that he was soon going to see his son
filled him with boyish good spirits. He almost embraced the Russian
in spite of his slovenly aspect, his tragic beard and his enormous
hat which made every one turn to look after him.
At the end of the avenue, the Arc de Triomphe stood forth against a
sky crimsoned by the sunset. A red cloud was floating around the
monument, reflected on its whiteness with purpling palpitations.
Desnoyers recalled the four horsemen, and all that Argensola had
told him before presenting him to the Russian.
"Blood!" shouted jubilantly. "All the sky seems to be blood-red. . . .
It is the apocalyptic beast who has received his death-wound.
Soon we shall see him die."
Tchernoff smiled, too, but his was a melancholy smile.
"No; the beast does not die. It is the eternal companion of man.
It hides, spouting blood, forty . . . sixty . . . a hundred years,
but eventually it reappears. All that we can hope is that its wound
may be long and deep, that it may remain hidden so long that the
generation that now remembers it may never see it again."
Don Marcelo was climbing up a mountain covered with woods.
The forest presented a tragic desolation. A silent tempest had
installed itself therein, placing everything in violent unnatural
positions. Not a single tree still preserved its upright form and
abundant foliage as in the days of peace. The groups of pines
recalled the columns of ruined temples. Some were still standing
erect, but without their crowns, like shafts that might have lost
their capitals; others were pierced like the mouthpiece of a flute,
or like pillars struck by a thunderbolt. Some had splintery threads
hanging around their cuts like used toothpicks.
A sinister force of destruction had been raging among these beeches,
spruce and oaks. Great tangles of their cut boughs were cluttering
the ground, as though a band of gigantic woodcutters had just passed
by. The trunks had been severed a little distance from the ground
with a clean and glistening stroke, as though with a single blow of
the axe. Around the disinterred roots were quantities of stones
mixed with sod, stones that had been sleeping in the recesses of the
earth and had been brought to the surface by explosions.
At intervals--gleaming among the trees or blocking the roadway with
an importunity which required some zigzagging--was a series of
pools, all alike, of regular geometrical circles. To Desnoyers,
they seemed like sunken basins for the use of the invisible Titans
who had been hewing the forest. Their great depth extended to their
very edges. A swimmer might dive into these lagoons without ever
touching bottom. Their water was greenish, still water--rain water
with a scum of vegetation perforated by the respiratory bubbles of
the little organisms coming to life in its vitals.
Bordering the hilly pathway through the pines, were many mounds with
crosses of wood--tombs of French soldiers topped with little
tricolored flags. Upon these moss-covered graves were the old kepis
of the gunners. The ferocious wood-chopper, in destroying this
woods, had also blindly demolished many of the ants swarming around
Don Marcelo was wearing leggings, a broad hat, and on his shoulders,
a fine poncho arranged like a shawl--garments which recalled his
far-distant life on the ranch. Behind him came Lacour trying to
preserve his senatorial dignity in spite of his gasps and puffs of
fatigue. He also was wearing high boots and a soft hat, but he had
kept to his solemn frock-coat in order not to abandon entirely his
parliamentary uniform. Before them marched two captains as guides.
They were on a mountain occupied by the French artillery, and were
climbing to the top where were hidden cannons and cannons, forming a
line some miles in length. The German artillery had caused the
woodland ruin around the visitors, in their return of the French
fire. The circular pools were the hollows dug by the German shells
in the limy, non-porous soil which preserved all the runnels of
The visiting party had left their automobile at the foot of the
mountain. One of the officers, a former artilleryman, explained
this precaution to them. It was necessary to climb this roadway
very cautiously. They were within reach of the enemy, and an
automobile might attract the attention of their gunners.
"A little fatiguing, this climb," he continued. "Courage, Senator
Lacour! . . . We are almost there."
They began to meet artillerymen, many of them not in uniform but
wearing the military kepis. They looked like workmen from a metal
factory, foundrymen with jackets and pantaloons of corduroy. Their
arms were bare, and some had put on wooden shoes in order to get
over the mud with greater security. They were former iron laborers,
mobilized into the artillery reserves. Their sergeants had been
factory overseers, and many of them officials, engineers and
proprietors of big workshops.
Suddenly the excursionists stumbled upon the iron inmates of the
woods. When these spoke, the earth trembled, the air shuddered, and
the native inhabitants of the forest, the crows, rabbits,
butterflies and ants, fled in terrified flight, trying to hide
themselves from the fearful convulsion which seemed to be bringing
the world to an end. Just at present, the bellowing monsters were
silent, so that they came upon them unexpectedly. Something was
sticking up out of the greenery like a gray beam; at other times,
this apparition would emerge from a conglomeration of dry trunks.
Around this obstacle was cleared ground occupied by men who lived,
slept and worked about this huge manufactory on wheels.
The senator, who had written verse in his youth and composed
oratorical poetry when dedicating various monuments in his district,
saw in these solitary men on the mountain side, blackened by the sun
and smoke, with naked breasts and bare arms, a species of priests
dedicated to the service of a fatal divinity that was receiving from
their hands offerings of enormous explosive capsules, hurling them
forth in thunderclaps.
Hidden under the branches, in order to escape the observation of the
enemy's birdmen, the French cannon were scattered among the hills
and hollows of the highland range. In this herd of steel, there
were enormous pieces with wheels reinforced by metal plates,
somewhat like the farming engines which Desnoyers had used on his
ranch for plowing. Like smaller beasts, more agile and playful in
their incessant yelping, the groups of '75 were mingled with the
The two captains had received from the general of their division
orders to show Senator Lacour minutely the workings of the
artillery, and Lacour was accepting their observations with
corresponding gravity while his eyes roved from side to side in the
hope of recognizing his son. The interesting thing for him was to
see Rene . . . but recollecting the official pretext of his journey,
he followed submissively from cannon to cannon, listening patiently
to all explanations.
The operators next showed him the servants of these pieces, great
oval cylinders extracted from subterranean storehouses called
shelters. These storage places were deep burrows, oblique wells
reinforced with sacks of stones and wood. They served as a refuge
to those off duty, and kept the munitions away from the enemy's
shell. An artilleryman exhibited two pouches of white cloth, joined
together and very full. They looked like a double sausage and were
the charge for one of the large cannons. The open packet showed
some rose-colored leaves, and the senator greatly admired this
dainty paste which looked like an article for the dressing table
instead of one of the most terrible explosives of modern warfare.
"I am sure," said Lacour, "that if I had found one of these delicate
packets on the street, I should have thought that it had been
dropped from some lady's vanity bag, or by some careless clerk from
a perfumery shop . . . anything but an explosive! And with this
trifle that looks as if it were made for the lips, it is possible to
blow up an edifice!" . . .
As they continued their visit of investigation, they came upon a
partially destroyed round tower in the highest part of the mountain.
This was the most dangerous post. From it, an officer was examining
the enemy's line in order to gauge the correctness of the aim of the
gunners. While his comrades were under the ground or hidden by the
branches, he was fulfilling his mission from this visible point.
A short distance from the tower a subterranean passageway opened
before their eyes. They descended through its murky recesses until
they found the various rooms excavated in the ground. One side of
the mountain cut in points formed its exterior facade. Narrow
little windows, cut in the stone, gave light and air to these
An old commandant in charge of the section came out to meet them.
Desnoyers thought that he must be the floorwalker of some big
department store in Paris. His manners were so exquisite and his
voice so suave that he seemed to be imploring pardon at every word,
or addressing a group of ladies, offering them goods of the latest
novelty. But this impression only lasted a moment. This soldier
with gray hair and near-sighted glasses who, in the midst of war,
was retaining his customary manner of a building director receiving
his clients, showed on moving his arms, some bandages and surgical
dressings within his sleeves, He was wounded in both wrists by the
explosion of a shell, but he was, nevertheless, sticking to his
"A devil of a honey-tongued, syrupy gentleman!" mused Don Marcelo.
"Yet he is undoubtedly an exceptional person!"
By this time, they had entered into the main office, a vast room
which received its light through a horizontal window about ten feet
wide and only a palm and a half high, reminding one of the open
space between the slats of a Venetian blind. Below it was a pine
table filled with papers and surrounded by stools. When occupying
one of these seats, one's eyes could sweep the entire plain. On the
walls were electric apparatus, acoustic tubes and telephones--many
The Commandant sorted and piled up the papers, offering the stools
with drawing-room punctilio.
"Here, Senator Lacour."
Desnoyers, humble attendant, took a seat at his side. The
Commandant now appeared to be the manager of a theatre, preparing to
exhibit an extraordinary show. He spread upon the table an enormous
paper which reproduced all the features of the plain extended before
them--roads, towns, fields, heights and valleys. Upon this map was
a triangular group of red lines in the form of an open fan; the
vertex represented the place where they were, and the broad part of
the triangle was the limit of the horizon which they were sweeping
with their eyes.
"We are going to fire at that grove," said the artilleryman,
pointing to one end of the map. "There it is," he continued,
designating a little dark line. "Take your glasses."
But before they could adjust the binoculars, the Commandant placed a
new paper on top of the map. It was an enormous and somewhat hazy
photograph upon whose plan appeared a fan of red lines like the
"Our aviators," explained the gunner courteously, "have taken this
morning some views of the enemy's positions. This is an enlargement
from our photographic laboratory. . . . According to this
information, there are two German regiments encamped in that wood."
Don Marcelo saw on the print the spot of woods, and within it white
lines which represented roads, and groups of little squares which
were blocks of houses in a village. He believed he must be in an
aeroplane contemplating the earth from a height of three thousand
feet. Then he raised the glasses to his eyes, following the
direction of one of the red lines, and saw enlarged in the circle of
the glass a black bar, somewhat like a heavy line of ink--the grove,
the refuge of the foe.
"Whenever you say, Senator Lacour, we will begin," said the
Commandant, reaching the topmost notch of his courtesy. "Are you
Desnoyers smiled slightly. For what was his illustrious friend to
make himself ready? What difference could it possibly make to a
mere spectator, much interested in the novelty of the show? . . .
There sounded behind them numberless bells, gongs that called and
gongs that answered. The acoustic tubes seemed to swell out with
the gallop of words. The electric wire filled the silence of the
room with the palpitations of its mysterious life. The bland Chief
was no longer occupied with his guests. They conjectured that he
was behind them, his mouth at the telephone, conversing with various
officials some distance off. Yet the urbane and well-spoken hero
was not abandoning for one moment his candied courtesy.
"Will you be kind enough to tell me when you are ready to begin?"
they heard him saying to a distant officer. "I shall be much
pleased to transmit the order."
Don Marcelo felt a slight nervous tremor near one of his legs; it
was Lecour, on the qui vive over the approaching novelty. They were
going to begin firing; something was going to happen that he had
never seen before. The cannons were above their heads; the roughly
vaulted roof was going to tremble like the deck of a ship when they
shot over it. The room with its acoustic tubes and its vibrations
from the telephones was like the bridge of a vessel at the moment of
clearing for action. The noise that it was going to make! . . . A
few seconds flitted by that to them seemed unusually long . . . and
then suddenly a sound like a distant peal of thunder which appeared
to come from the clouds. Desnoyers no longer felt the nervous
twitter against his knee. The senator seemed surprised; his
expression seemed to say, "And is that all? . . . The heaps of
earth above them had deadened the report, so that the discharge of
the great machine seemed no more than the blow of a club upon a
mattress. Far more impressive was the scream of the projectile
sounding at a great height but displacing the air with such violence
that its waves reached even to the window.
It went flying . . . flying, its roar lessening. Some time passed
before they noticed its effects, and the two friends began to
believe that it must have been lost in space. "It will not
strike . . . it will not strike," they were thinking. Suddenly
there surged up on the horizon, exactly in the spot indicated
over the blur of the woods, a tremendous column of smoke, a
whirling tower of black vapor followed by a volcanic explosion.
"How dreadful it must be to be there!" said the senator.
He and Desnoyers were experiencing a sensation of animal joy, a
selfish hilarity in seeing themselves in such a safe place several
"The Germans are going to reply at any moment," said Don Marcelo to
The senator was of the same opinion. Undoubtedly they would
retaliate, carrying on an artillery duel.
All of the French batteries had opened fire. The mountain was
thundering, the shell whining, the horizon, still tranquil, was
bristling with black, spiral columns. The two realized more and
more how snug they were in this retreat, like a box at the theatre.
Someone touched Lacour on the shoulder. It was one of the captains
who was conducting them through the front.
"We are going above," he said simply. "You must see close by how
our cannons are working. The sight will be well worth the trouble."
Above? . . . The illustrious man was as perplexed, as astonished as
though he had suggested an interplanetary trip. Above, when the
enemy was going to reply from one minute to another? . . .
The captain explained that sub-Lieutenant Lacour was perhaps
awaiting his father. By telephone they had advised his battery
stationed a little further on; it would be necessary to go now in
order to see him. So they again climbed up to the light through the
mouth of the tunnel. The senator then drew himself up, majestically
"They are going to fire at us," said a voice in his interior, "The
foe is going to reply."
But he adjusted his coat like a tragic mantle and advanced at a
circumspect and solemn pace. If those military men, adversaries of
parliamentarism, fancied that they were going to laugh up their
sleeve at the timidity of a civilian, he would show them their
Desnoyers could not but admire the resolution with which the great
man made his exit from the shelter, exactly as if he were going to
march against the foe.
At a little distance, the atmosphere was rent into tumultuous waves,
making their legs tremble, their ears hum, and their necks feel as
though they had just been struck. They both thought that the
Germans had begun to return the fire, but it was the French who were
shooting. A feathery stream of vapor came up out of the woods a
dozen yards away, dissolving instantly. One of the largest pieces,
hidden in the nearby thicket, had just been discharged. The
captains continued their explanations without stopping their
journey. It was necessary to pass directly in front of the spitting
monster, in spite of the violence of its reports, so as not to
venture out into the open woods near the watch tower. They were
expecting from one second to another now, the response from their
neighbors across the way. The guide accompanying Don Marcelo
congratulated him on the fearlessness with which he was enduring the
"My friend is well acquainted with it," remarked the senator
proudly. "He was in the battle of the Marne."
The two soldiers evidently thought this very strange, considering
Desnoyers' advanced age. To what section had he belonged? In what
capacity had he served? . . .
"Merely as a victim," was the modest reply.
An officer came running toward them from the tower side, across the
cleared space. He waved his kepi several times that they might see
him better. Lacour trembled for him. The enemy might descry him;
he was simply making a target of himself by cutting across that open
space in order to reach them the sooner. . . . And he trembled
still more as he came nearer. . . . It was Rene!
His hands returned with some astonishment the strong, muscular
grasp. He noticed that the outlines of his son's face were more
pronounced, and darkened with the tan of camp life. An air of
resolution, of confidence in his own powers, appeared to emanate
from his person. Six months of intense life had transformed him.
He was the same but broader-chested and more stalwart. The gentle
and sweet features of his mother were lost under the virile mask. . . .
Lacour recognized with pride that he now resembled himself.
After greetings had been exchanged, Rene paid more attention to Don
Marcelo than to his father, because he reminded him of Chichi. He
inquired after her, wishing to know all the details of her life, in
spite of their ardent and constant correspondence.
The senator, meanwhile, still under the influence of his recent
emotion, had adopted a somewhat oratorical air toward his son. He
forthwith improvised a fragment of discourse in honor of that
soldier of the Republic bearing the glorious name of Lacour, deeming
this an opportune time to make known to these professional soldiers
the lofty lineage of his family.
"Do your duty, my son. The Lacours inherit warrior traditions.
Remember our ancestor, the Deputy of the Convention who covered
himself with glory in the defense of Mayence!"
While he was discoursing, they had started forward, doubling a point
of the greenwood in order to get behind the cannons.
Here the racket was less violent. The great engines, after each
discharge, were letting escape through the rear chambers little
clouds of smoke like those from a pipe. The sergeants were
dictating numbers, communicated in a low voice by another gunner who
had a telephone receiver at his ear. The workmen around the cannon
were obeying silently. They would touch a little wheel and the
monster would raise its grey snout, moving it from side to side with
the intelligent expression and agility of an elephant's trunk. At
the foot of the nearest piece, stood the operator, rod in hand, and
with impassive face. He must be deaf, yet his facial inertia was
stamped with a certain authority. For him, life was no more than a
series of shots and detonations. He knew his importance. He was
the servant of the tempest, the guardian of the thunderbolt.
"Fire!" shouted the sergeant.
And the thunder broke forth in fury. Everything appeared to be
trembling, but the two visitors were by this time so accustomed to
the din that the present uproar seemed but a secondary affair.
Lacour was about to take up the thread of his discourse about his
glorious forefather in the convention when something interfered.
"They are firing," said the man at the telephone simply.
The two officers repeated to the senator this news from the watch
tower. Had he not said that the enemy was going to fire? . . .
Obeying a sane instinct of preservation, and pushed at the same time
by his son, he found himself in the refuge of the battery. He
certainly did not wish to hide himself in this cave, so he remained
near the entrance, with a curiosity which got the best of his
He felt the approach of the invisible projectile, in spite of the
roar of the neighboring cannon. He perceived with rare sensibility
its passage through the air, above the other closer and more
powerful sounds. It was a squealing howl that was swelling in
intensity, that was opening out as it advanced, filling all space.
Soon it ceased to be a shriek, becoming a rude roar formed by divers
collisions and frictions, like the descent of an electric tram
through a hillside road, or the course of a train which passes
through a station without stopping.
He saw it approach in the form of a cloud, bulging as though it were
going to explode over the battery. Without knowing just how it
happened, the senator suddenly found himself in the bottom of the
shelter, his hands in cold contact with a heap of steel cylinders
lined up like bottles. They were projectiles.
"If a German shell," he thought, "should explode above this
burrow . . . what a frightful blowing up!" . . .
But he calmed himself by reflecting on the solidity of the arched
vault with its beams and sacks of earth several yards thick.
Suddenly he was in absolute darkness. Another had sought refuge in
the shelter, obstructing the light with his body; perhaps his friend
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