Part 4 out of 7
last night that the fragment of a shell caught him in the back. No
doubt we are the first to find him, this unknown soldier secretly
dead. Perhaps he will be scattered before others find him, so we
look for his identity disc--it is stuck in the clotted blood where
his right hand stagnates. I copy down the name that is written in
letters of blood.
Poterloo lets me do it by myself--he is like a sleepwalker. He
looks, and looks in despair, everywhere. He seeks endlessly among
those evanished and eviscerated things; through the void he gazes to
the haze of the horizon. Then he sits down on a beam, having first
sent flying with a kick a saucepan that lay on it, and I sit by his
side. A light drizzle is falling. The fog's moisture is resolving in
little drops that cover everything with a slight gloss. He murmurs,
"Ah, la, la!"
He wipes his forehead and raises imploring eyes to me. He is trying
to make out and take in the destruction of all this corner of the
earth, and the mournfulness of it. He stammers disjointed remarks
and interjections. He takes off his great helmet and his head is
smoking. Then he says to me with difficulty, "Old man, you cannot
imagine, you cannot, you cannot--"
He whispers: "The Red Tavern, where that--where that Boche's head
is, and litters of beastliness all around, that sort of cesspool--it
was on the edge of the road, a brick house and two out-buildings
alongside--how many times, old man, on the very spot where we stood,
how many times, there, the good woman who joked with me on her
doorstep, I've given her good-day as I wiped my mouth and looked
towards Souchez that I was going back to! And then, after a few
steps, I've turned round to shout some nonsense to her! Oh, you
cannot imagine! But that, now, that!" He makes an inclusive gesture
to indicate all the emptiness that surrounds him.
"We mustn't stay here too long, old chap. The fog's lifting, you
He stands up with an effort--"Allons."
The most serious part is yet to come. His house--
He hesitates, turns towards the east, goes. "It's there--no, I've
passed it. It's not there. I don't know where it is--or where it
was. Ah, misery, misery!" He wrings his hands in despair and
staggers in the middle of the medley of plaster and bricks. Then,
bewildered by this encumbered plain of lost landmarks, he looks
questioningly about in the air, like a thoughtless child, like a
madman. He is looking for the intimacy of the bedrooms scattered in
infinite space, for their inner form and their twilight now cast
upon the winds!
After several goings and comings, he stops at one spot and draws
back a little--"It was there, I'm right. Look--it's that stone there
that I knew it by. There was a vent-hole there, you can see the mark
of the bar of iron that was over the hole before it disappeared."
Sniffling he reflects, and gently shaking his head as though he
could not stop it: "It is when you no longer have anything that you
understand how happy you were. Ah, how happy we were!"
He comes up to me and laughs nervously: "It's out of the common,
that, eh? I'm sure you've never seen yourself like it--can't find
the house where you've always lived since--since always--"
He turns about, and it is he who leads me away:
"Well, let's leg it, since there is nothing. Why spend a whole hour
looking at places where things were? Let's be off, old man."
We depart--the only two living beings to be seen in that unreal and
miasmal place, that village which bestrews the earth and lies under
We climb again. The weather is clearing and the fog scattering
quickly. My silent comrade, who is making great strides with lowered
head, points out a field: "The cemetery," he says; "it was there
before it was everywhere, before it laid hold on everything without
end, like a plague."
Half-way, we go more slowly, and Poterloo comes close to me-"You
know, it's too much, all that. It's wiped out too much--all my life
up to now. It makes me afraid--it is so completely wiped out."
"Come; your wife's in good health, you know; your little girl, too."
He looks at me comically: "My wife--I'll tell you something; my
"Well, old chap, I've seen her again."
"You've seen her? I thought she was in the occupied country?"
"Yes, she's at Lens, with my relations. Well, I've seen her--ah,
and then, after all, zut!--I'll tell you all about it. Well, I was
at Lens, three weeks ago. It was the eleventh; that's twenty days
I look at him, astounded. But he looks like one who is speaking the
truth. He talks in sputters at my side. as we walk in the increasing
"They told us--you remember, perhaps--but you weren't there, I
believe--they told us the wire had got to be strengthened in front
of the Billard Trench. You know what that means, eh? They hadn't
been able to do it till then. As soon as one gets out of the trench
he's on a downward slope, that's got a funny name."
"Yes, that's it; and the place is as bad by night or in fog as in
broad daylight, because of the rifles trained on it before hand on
trestles, and the machine-guns that they point during the day. When
they can't see any more, the Boches sprinkle the lot.
"They took the pioneers of the C.H.R., hut there were some missing,
and they replaced 'em with a few poilus. I was one of 'em. Good. We
climb out. Not a single rifle-shot! 'What does it mean?' we says,
and behold. we see a Boche, two Boches, three Boches, coming out of
the ground--the gray devils!--and they make signs to us and shout
'Kamarad!' 'We're Alsatians,' they says. coming more and more out of
their communication trench--the International. 'They won't fire on
you, up there,' they says; 'don't be afraid, friends. Just let us
bury our dead.' And behold us working aside of each other, and even
talking together since they were from Alsace. And to tell the truth,
they groused about the war and about their officers. Our sergeant
knew all right that it was forbidden to talk with the enemy, and
they'd even read it out to us that we were only to talk to them with
our rifles. But the sergeant he says to himself that this is God's
own chance to strengthen the wire, and as long as they were letting
us work against them, we'd just got to take advantage of it,
"Then behold one of the Boches that says, 'There isn't perhaps one
of you that comes from the invaded country and would like news of
"Old chap, that was a bit too much for me. Without thinking if I did
right or wrong, I went up to him and I said, 'Yes, there's me.' The
Boche asks me questions. I tell him my wife's at Lens with her
relations, and the little one, to. He asks where she's staying. I
explain to him, and he says he can see it from there. 'Listen,' he
says, 'I'll take her a letter, and not only that, but I'll bring you
an answer.' Then all of a sudden he taps his forehead, the Boche,
and comes close to me--'Listen, my friend, to a lot better still. If
you like to do what I say, you shall see your wife, and your kids as
well, and all the lot, sure as I see you.' He tells me, to do it,
I've only got to go with him at a certain time with a Boche
greatcoat and a shako that he'll have for me. He'd mix me up in a
coal-fatigue in Lens, and we'd go to our house. I could go and have
a look on condition that I laid low and didn't show myself, and he'd
be responsible for the chaps of the fatigue, but there were
non-coms. in the house that he wouldn't answer for--and, old chap, I
"That was serious."
"Yes, for sure, it was serious. I decided all at once. without
thinking and without wishing to think, seeing I was dazzled with the
idea of seeing my people again; and if I got shot afterwards, well,
so much the worse--but give and take. The supply of law and demand
they call it, don't they?
"My boy, it all went swimmingly. The only hitch was they had such
hard work to find a shako big enough, for, as you know, I'm well off
for head. But even that was fixed up. They raked me out in the end a
lousebox big enough to hold my head. I've already some Boche
boots--those that were Caron's, you know. So, behold us setting off
in the Boche trenches--and they're most damnably like ours--with
these good sorts of Boche comrades, who told me in very good
French--same as I'm speaking--not to fret myself.
"There was no alarm, nothing. Getting there came off all right.
Everything went off so sweet and simple that I fancied I must be a
defaulting Boche. We got to Lens at nightfall. I remember we passed
in front of La Perche and went down the Rue du Quatorze-Juillet. I
saw some of the townsfolk walking about in the streets like they do
in our quarters. I didn't recognize them because of the evening, nor
them me, because of the evening too, and because of the seriousness
of things. It was so dark you couldn't put your finger into your eye
when I reached my folk's garden.
"My heart was going top speed. I was all trembling from head to foot
as if I were only a sort of heart myself. And I had to hold myself
back from carrying on aloud, and in French too, I was so happy and
upset. The Kamarad says to me, 'You go, pass once, then another
time, and look in at the door and the window. Don't look as if you
were looking. Be careful.' So I get hold of myself again, and
swallow my feelings all at a gulp. Not a bad sort, that devil,
seeing he'd have had a hell of a time if I'd got nailed.
"At our place, you know, same as everywhere in the Pas de Calais,
the outside doors of the houses are cut in two. At the bottom, it's
a sort of barrier, half-way up your body; and above, you might call
it a shutter. So you can shut the bottom half and be one-half
"The top half was open, and the room, that's the dining-room, and
the kitchen as well, of course, was lighted up and I heard voices.
"I went by with my neck twisted sideways. There were heads of men
and women with a rosy light on them, round the round table and the
lamp. My eyes fell on her, on Clotilde. I saw her plainly. She was
sitting between two chaps, non-coms., I believe, and they were
talking to her. And what was she doing? Nothing; she was smiling,
and her face was prettily bent forward and surrounded with a light
little framework of fair hair, and the lamp gave it a bit of a
"She was smiling. She was contented. She had a look of being well
off, by the side of the Boche officer, and the lamp, and the fire
that puffed an unfamiliar warmth out on me. I passed, and then I
turned round, and passed again. I saw her again, and she was always
smiling. Not a forced smile, not a debtor's smile, non, a real smile
that came from her, that she gave. And during that time of
illumination that I passed in two senses, I could see my baby as
well, stretching her hands out to a great striped simpleton and
trying to climb on his knee; and then, just by, who do you think I
recognized? Madeleine Vandaert, Vandaert's wife, my pal of
the 19th, that was killed at the Maine, at Montyon.
"She knew he'd been killed because she was in mourning. And she, she
was having good fun, and laughing outright, I tell you--and she
looked at one and the other as much as to say, 'I'm all right here!'
"Ah, my boy, I cleared out of that, and butted into the Kamarads
that were waiting to take me back. How I got back I couldn't tell
you. I was knocked out. I went stumbling like a man under a curse,
and if any-body had said a wrong word to me just then--! I should
have shouted out loud; I should have made a row, so as to get killed
and be done with this filthy life!
"Do you catch on? She was smiling, my wife, my Clotilde, at this
time in the war! And why? Have we only got to be away for a time for
us not to count any more? You take your damned hook from home to go
to the war, and everything seems finished with; and they worry for a
while that you're gone, but bit by bit you become as if you didn't
exist, they can do without you to be as happy as they were before,
and to smile. Ah, Christ! I'm not talking of the other woman that
was laughing, but my Clotilde, mine, who at that chance moment when
I saw her, whatever you may say, was getting on damned well without
"And then, if she'd been with friends or relations; but no, actually
with Boche officers! Tell me, shouldn't I have had good reason to
jump into the room, fetch her a couple of swipes, and wring the neck
of the other old hen in mourning?
"Yes, yes; I thought of doing it. I know all right I was getting
violent, I was getting out of control.
"Mark me. I don't want to say more about it than I have said. She's
a good lass, Clotilde. I know her, and I've confidence in her. I'm
not far wrong, you know. If I were done in, she'd cry all the tears
in her body to begin with. She thinks I'm alive, I admit, but that
isn't the point. She can't prevent herself from being; well off, and
contented, and letting herself go, when she's a good fire, a good
lamp, and company, whether I'm there or not--"
I led Poterloo away: "You exaggerate, old chap; you're getting
absurd notions, come." We had walked very slowly and were still at
the foot of the hill. The fog was becoming like silver as it
prepared for departure. Sunshine was very near.
* * * * * *
Poterloo looked up and said, "We'll go round by the Carency road and
go in at the back." We struck off at an angle into the fields. At
the end of a few minutes he said to me, "I exaggerate, you think?
You say that I exaggerate?" He reflected. "Ah!" Then he added, with
the shaking of the head that had hardly left him all the morning,
"What about it? All the same, it's a fact--"
We climbed the slope. The cold had become tepidity. Arrived on a
little plateau--"Let's sit here again before going in," he proposed.
He sat down, heavy with the world of thought that entangled him. His
forehead was wrinkled. Then he turned towards me with an awkward
air, as if he were going to beg some favor: "Tell me, mate, I'm
wondering if I'm right."
But after looking at me, he looked at everything else, as though he
would rather consult them than me.
A transformation was taking place in the sky and on the earth. The
fog was hardly more than a fancy. Distances revealed themselves. The
narrow plain, gloomy and gray, was getting bigger, chasing its
shadows away, and assuming color. The light was passing over it from
east to west like sails.
And down there at our very feet, by the grace of distance and of
light, we saw Souchez among the trees--the little place arose again
before our eyes, new-born in the sunshine!
"Am I right?" repeated Poterloo, more faltering, more dubious.
Before I could speak he replied to himself, at first almost in a
whisper, as the light fell on him--"She's quite young, you know;
she's twenty-six. She can't hold her youth in, it's coming out of
her all over, and when she's resting in the lamp-light and the
warmth, she's got to smile; and even if she burst out laughing, it
would just simply be her youth, singing in her throat. It isn't on
account of others, if truth were told; it's on account of herself.
It's life. She lives. Ah, yes, she lives, and that's all. It isn't
her fault if she lives. You wouldn't have her die? Very well, what
do you want her to do? Cry all day on account of me and the Boches?
Grouse? One can't cry all the time, nor grouse for eighteen months.
Can't be done. It's too long, I tell you. That's all there is to
He stops speaking to look at the view of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, now
"Same with the kid; when she found herself alongside a simpleton
that doesn't tell her to go and play with herself, she ends by
wanting to get on his knee. Perhaps she'd prefer that it was her
uncle or a friend or her father--perhaps--but she tries it on all
the same with the only man that's always there, even if it's a great
hog in spectacles.
"Ah," he cries, as he gets up and comes gesticulating before me.
"There's a good answer one could give me. If I didn't come back from
the war, I should say, 'My lad, you've gone to smash, no more
Clotilde, no more love! You'll be replaced in her heart sooner or
later; no getting round it; your memory, the portrait of you that
she carries in her, that'll fade bit by bit and another'll come on
top of it, and she'll begin another life again.' Ah, if I didn't
He laughs heartily. "But I mean to come back. Ah, yes! One must be
there. Otherwise--I must be there, look you," he says again more
seriously; "otherwise, if you're not there, even if you're dealing
with saints and angels, you'll be at fault in the end. That's life.
But I am there." He laughs. "Well, I'm a little there, as one might
I get up too, and tap him on the shoulder. "You're right, old pal,
it'll all come to an end."
He rubs his hands and goes on talking. "Yes, by God! it'll all
finish, don't worry. Oh, I know well there'll be hard graft before
it's finished, and still more after. We've got to work, and I don't
only mean work with the arms.
"It'll be necessary to make everything over again. Very well, we'll
do it. The house? Gone. The garden? Nowhere. All right, we'll
rebuild the house, we'll remake the garden. The less there is the
more we'll make over again. After all, it's life, and we're made to
remake, eh? And we'll remake our life together, and happiness. We'll
make the days again; we'll remake the nights.
"And the other side, too. They'll make their world again. Do you
know what I say?--perhaps it won't be as long as one thinks--"
"Tiens! I can see Madeleine Vandaert marrying another chap.
She's a widow; but, old man, she's been a widow eighteen months. Do
you think it's not a big slice, that, eighteen months? They even
leave off wearing mourning, I believe, about that time! People don't
remember that when they say 'What a strumpet she is,' and when, in
effect, they ask her to commit suicide. But mon vieux, one forgets.
One is forced to forget. It isn't the people that make you forget;
you do it yourself; it's just forgetfulness, mind you. I find
Madeleine again all of a sudden, and to see her frivvling there it
broke me up as much as if her husband had been killed
yesterday--it's natural. But it's a devil of a long time since he
got spiked, poor lad. It's a long time since, it's too long since.
People are no longer the same. But, mark you, one must come back,
one must be there! We shall be there, and we shall be busy with
On the way, he looks and winks, cheered up by finding a peg on which
to hang his ideas. He says--"I can see it from here, after the war,
all the Souchez people setting themselves again to work and to
life--what a business! Tiens, Papa Ponce, for example, the
back-number! He was so pernickety that you could see him sweeping
the grass in his garden with a horsehair brush, or kneeling on his
lawn and trimming the turf with a pair of scissors. Very well, he'll
treat himself to that again! And Madame Imaginaire, that lived in
one of the last houses towards the Chateau de Carleul, a large woman
who seemed to roll along the ground as if she'd got casters under
her big circular petticoats. She had a child every year, regular,
punctual--a proper machine-gun of kids. Very well, she'll take that
occupation up again with all her might."
He stops and ponders, and smiles a very little--almost within
himself: "Tiens, I'll tell you; I noticed--it isn't very important,
this," he insists, as though suddenly embarrassed by the triviality
of this parenthesis--"but I noticed (you notice it in a glance when
you're noticing something else) that it was cleaner in our house
than in my time--"
We come on some little rails in the ground, climbing almost hidden
in the withered grass underfoot. Poterloo points out with his foot
this bit of abandoned track, and smiles; "That, that's our railway.
It was a cripple, as you may say; that means something that doesn't
move. It didn't work very quickly. A snail could have kept pace with
it. We shall remake it. But certainly it won't go any quicker. That
can't be allowed!"
When we reached the top of the hill, Poterloo turned round and threw
a last look over the slaughtered places that we had just visited.
Even more than a minute ago, distance recreated the village across
the remains of trees shortened and sliced that now looked like young
saplings. Better even than just now, the sun shed on that white and
red accumulation of mingled material an appearance of life and even
an illusion of meditation. Its very stones seemed to feel the vernal
revival. The beauty of sunshine heralded what would be, and revealed
the future. The face of the watching soldier, too, shone with a
glamour of reincarnation, and the smile on it was born of the
springtime and of hope. His rosy cheeks and blue eyes seemed
brighter than ever.
We go down into the communication trench and there is sunshine
there. The trench is yellow, dry, and resounding. I admire its
finely geometrical depth, its shovel-smoothed and shining flanks;
and I find it enjoyable to hear the clean sharp sound of our feet on
the hard ground or on the caillebotis--little gratings of wood,
placed end to end and forming a plankway.
I look at my watch. It tells me that it is nine o'clock, and it
shows me, too, a dial of delicate color where the sky is reflected
in rose-pink and blue, and the fine fret-work of bushes that are
planted there above the marges of the trench.
And Poterloo and I look at each other with a kind of confused
delight. We are glad to see each other, as though we were meeting
after absence! He speaks to me, and though I am quite familiar with
the singsong accent of the North, I discover that he is singing.
We have had bad days and tragic nights in the cold and the rain and
the mud. Now, although it is still winter, the first fine morning
shows and convinces us that it will soon be spring once more.
Already the top of the trench is graced by green young grass, and
amid its new-born quivering some flowers are awakening. It means the
end of contracted and constricted days. Spring is coming from above
and from below. We inhale with joyful hearts; we are uplifted.
Yes, the had days are ending. The war will end, too, que diable! And
no doubt it will end in the beautiful season that is coming, that
already illumines us, whose zephyrs already caress us.
A whistling sound--tiens, a spent bullet! A bullet? Nonsense--it's a
blackbird! Curious how similar the sound was! The blackbirds and the
birds of softer song, the countryside and the pageant of the
seasons, the intimacy of dwelling-rooms, arrayed in light--Oh! the
war will end soon; we shall go back for good to our own; wife,
children, or to her who is at once wife and child, and we smile
towards them in this young glory that already unites us again.
At the forking of the two trenches, in the open and on the edge,
here is something like a doorway. Two posts lean one upon the other,
with a confusion of electric wires between them, hanging down like
tropical creepers. It looks well. You would say it was a theatrical
contrivance or scene. A slender climbing plant twines round one of
the posts, and as you follow it with your glance, you see that it
already dares to pass from one to the other.
Soon, passing along this trench whose grassy slopes quiver like the
flanks of a fine horse, we come out into our own trench on the
Bethune road, and here is our place. Our comrades are there,
in clusters. They are eating, and enjoying the goodly temperature.
The meal finished, we clean our aluminium mess-tins or plates with a
morsel of bread. "Tiens, the sun's going!" It is true; a cloud has
passed over and hidden it. "It's going to splash, my little lads,"
says Lamuse "that's our luck all over! Just as we are going off!"
"A damned country!" says Fouillade. In truth this Northern climate
is not worth much. It drizzles and mizzles, reeks and rains. And
when there is any sun it soon disappears in the middle of this great
Our four days in the trenches are finished, and the relief will
commence at nightfall. Leisurely we get ready for leaving. We fill
and put aside the knapsacks and bags. We give a rub to the rifles
and wrap them up.
It is already four o'clock. Darkness is falling quickly, and we grow
indistinct to each other. "Damnation. Here's the rain!" A few drops
and then the downpour. Oh, la, la, la! We don our capes and
tent-cloths. We go back unto the dug-out, dabbling, and gathering
mud on our knees, hands, and elbows, for the bottom of the trench is
getting sticky. Once inside, we have hardly time to light a candle,
stuck on a bit of stone, and to shiver all round--"Come on, en
We hoist ourselves into the wet and windy darkness outside. I can
dimly see Poterloo's powerful shoulders; in the ranks we are always
side by side. When we get going I call to him, "Are you there, old
chap?"--"Yes, in front of you," he cries to me, turning round. As he
turns he gets a buffet in the face from wind and rain, but he
laughs. His happy face of the morning abides with him. No downpour
shall rob him of the content that he carries in his strong and
steadfast heart; no evil night put out the sunshine that I saw
possess his thoughts some hours ago.
We march, and jostle each other, and stumble. The rain is
continuous, and water runs in the bottom of the trench. The
floor-gratings yield as the soil becomes soaked; some of them slope
to right or left and we skid on them. In the dark, too, one cannot
see them, so we miss them at the turnings and put our feet into
holes full of water.
Even in the grayness of the night I will not lose sight of the slaty
shine of Poterloo's helmet, which streams like a roof under the
torrent, nor of the broad back that is adorned with a square of
glistening oilskin. I lock my step in his, and from time to time I
question him and he answers me--always in good humor, always serene
When there are no more of the wooden floor-gratings, we tramp in the
thick mud. It is dark now. There is a sudden halt and I am thrown on
Poterloo. Up higher we hear half-angry reproaches--"What the devil,
will you get on? We shall get broken up!"
"I can't get my trotters unstuck!" replies a pitiful voice.
The engulfed one gets clear at last, and we have to run to overtake
the rest of the company. We begin to pant and complain, and bluster
against those who are leading. Our feet go down haphazard; we
stumble and hold ourselves up by the wails, so that our hands are
plastered with mud. The march becomes a stampede, full of the noise
of metal things and of oaths.
In redoubled rain there is a second halt; some one has fallen, and
the hubbub is general. He picks himself up and we are off again. I
exert myself to follow Poterloo's helmet closely that gleams feebly
in the night before my eyes, and I shout from time to time, "All
right?"--"Yes, yes, all right," he replies, puffing and blowing, and
his voice always singsong and resonant.
Our knapsacks, tossed in this rolling race under the assault of the
elements, drag and hurt our shoulders.
The trench is blocked by a recent landslide, and we plunge unto it.
We have to tear our feet out of the soft and clinging earth, lifting
them high at each step. Then, when this crossing is laboriously
accomplished, we topple down again into the slippery stream, in the
bottom of which are two narrow ruts, boot-worn, which hold one's
foot like a vice, and there are pools into which it goes with a
great splash. In one place we must stoop very low to pass under a
heavy and glutinous bridge that crosses the trench, and we only get
through with difficulty. It obliges us to kneel in the mud, to
flatten ourselves on the ground, and to crawl on all fours for a few
paces. A little farther there are evolutions to perform as we grasp
a post that the sinking of the ground has set aslope across the
middle of the fairway.
We come to a trench-crossing. "Allons, forward! Look out for
yourselves, boys!" says the adjutant, who has flattened himself in a
corner to let us pass and to speak to us. "This is a bad spot."
"We're done up," shouts a voice so hoarse that I cannot identify the
"Damn! I've enough of it, I'm stopping here," groans another, at the
end of his wind and his muscle.
"What do you want me to do?" replies the adjutant, "No fault of
mine. eh? Allons, get a move on, it's a bad spot--it was shelled at
the last relief!"
We go on through the tempest of wind and water. We seem to be going
ever down and down, as in a pit. We slip and tumble, butt into the
wall of the trench, into which we drive our elbows hard, so as to
throw ourselves upright again. Our going is a sort of long slide, on
which we keep up just how and where we can. What matters is to
stumble only forward, and as straight as possible.
Where are we? I lift my head, in spite of the billows of rain, out
of this gulf where we are struggling. Against the hardly discernible
background of the buried sky, I can make out the rim of the trench;
and there, rising before my eyes all at once and towering over that
rim, is something like a sinister doorway, made of two black posts
that lean one upon the other, with something hanging from the middle
like a torn-off scalp. It is the doorway.
I lower my head and see no more; but again I hear the feet that sink
in the mud and come out again, the rattle of the bayonets, the heavy
exclamations, and the rapid breathing.
Once more there is a violent back-eddy. We pull up sharply, and
again I am thrown upon Poterloo and lean on his back, his strong
back and solid, like the trunk of a tree, like healthfulness and
like hope. He cries to me, "Cheer up, old man, we're there!"
We are standing still. It is necessary to go hack a little--Nom de
Dieu!--no, we are moving on again!
Suddenly a fearful explosion falls on us. I tremble to my skull; a
metallic reverberation fills my head; a scorching and suffocating
smell of sulphur pierces my nostrils. The earth has opened in front
of me. I feel myself lifted and hurled aside--doubled up, choked,
and half blinded by this lightning and thunder. But still my
recollection is clear; and in that moment when I looked wildly and
desperately for my comrade-in-arms, I saw his body go up, erect and
black, both his arms outstretched to their limit, and a flame in the
place of his head!
[note 1:] All these high roads are stone-paved, and traffic is
The Big Words
BARQUE notices that I am writing. He comes towards me on all fours
through the straw and lifts his intelligent face to me, with its
reddish forelock and the little quick eyes over which circumflex
accents fold and unfold them-selves. His mouth is twisting in all
directions, by reason of a tablet of chocolate that he crunches and
chews, while he holds the moist stump of it in his fist.
With his mouth full, and wafting me the odor of a sweetshop, he
stammers--"Tell me, you writing chap, you'll be writing later about
soldiers, you'll be speaking of us, eh?"
"Why yes, sonny, I shall talk about you, and about the boys, and
about our life."
"Tell me, then"--he indicates with a nod the papers on which I have
been making notes. With hovering pencil I watch and listen to him.
He has a question to put to me--"Tell me, then, though you needn't
if you don't want--there's something I want to ask you. This is it;
if you make the common soldiers talk in your book, are you going to
make them talk like they do talk, or shall you put it all
straight--into pretty talk? It's about the big words that we use.
For after all, now, besides falling out sometimes and blackguarding
each other, you'll never hear two poilus open their heads for a
minute without saying and repeating things that the printers
wouldn't much like to print. Then what? If you don't say 'em, your
portrait won't be a lifelike one it's as if you were going to paint
them and then left out one of the gaudiest colors wherever you found
it. All the same, it isn't usually done."
"I shall put the big words in their place, dadda, for they're the
"But tell me, if you put 'em in, won't the people of your sort say
you're swine, without worrying about the truth?"
"Very likely, but I shall do it all the same, without worrying about
"Do you want my opinion? Although I know nothing about books, it's
brave to do that, because it isn't usually done, and it'll be spicy
if you dare do it--but you'll find it hard when it comes to it,
you're too polite. That's just one of the faults I've found in you
since we've known each other; that, and also that dirty habit you've
got, when they're serving brandy out to us, you pretend it'll do you
harm, and instead of giving your share to a pal, you go and pour it
on your head to wash your scalp."
AT the end of the yard of the Muets farm, among the outbuildings,
the barn gapes like a cavern. It is always caverns for us, even in
houses! When you have crossed the yard, where the manure yields
underfoot with a spongy sound or have gone round it instead on the
narrow paved path of difficult equilibrium, and when you have
arrived at the entrance to the barn, you can see nothing at all.
Then, if you persist, you make out a misty hollow where equally
misty and dark lumps are asquat or prone or wandering from one
corner to another. At the back, on the right and on the left, the
pale gleams of two candles, each with the round halo of a distant
moon allow you at last to make out the human shape of these masses,
whose mouths emit either steam or thick smoke.
Our hazy retreat, which I allow carefully to swallow me whole, is a
scene of excitement this evening. We leave for the trenches
to-morrow morning, and the nebulous tenants of the barn are
beginning to pack up.
Although darkness falls on my eyes and chokes them as I come in from
the pallid evening, I still dodge the snares spread over the ground
by water-bottles, mess-tins and weapons, but I butt full into the
loaves that are packed together exactly in the middle, like the
paving of a yard. I reach my corner. Something alive is there with a
huge back, fleecy and rounded, squatting and stooping over a
collection of little things that glitter on the ground, and I tap
the shoulder upholstered in sheepskin. The being turns round, and by
the dull and fitful gleam of a candle which a bayonet stuck in the
ground upholds, I see one half of a face, an eye, the end of a
mustache, and the corner of a half-open mouth. It growls in a
friendly way, and resumes the inspection of its possessions.
"What are you doing there?"
"I'm fixing things, and clearing up."
The quasi-brigand who appears to be checking his booty, is my
comrade Volpatte. He has folded his tent-cloth in four and placed it
on his bed--that is, on the truss of straw assigned to him--and on
this carpet he has emptied and displayed the contents of his
And it is quite a shop that he broods over with a housewife's
solicitous eyes, watchful and jealous, lest some one walks over him.
With my eye I tick off his copious exhibition.
Alongside his handkerchief, pipe, tobacco-pouch (which also contains
a note-book), knife, purse, and pocket pipe-lighter, which comprise
the necessary and indispensable groundwork, here are two leather
laces twisted like earthworms round a watch enclosed in a case of
transparent celluloid, which has curiously dulled and blanched with
age. Then a little round mirror, and another square one; this last,
though broken, is of better quality, and bevel-edged. A flask of
essence of turpentine, a flask of mineral oil nearly empty, and a
third flask, empty. A German belt-plate, bearing the device, "Gott
mit uns"; a dragoon's tassel of similar origin; half wrapped in
paper, an aviator's arrow in the form of a steel pencil and pointed
like a needle; folding scissors and a combined knife and fork of
similar pliancy; a stump of pencil and one of candle; a tube of
aspirin, also containing opium tablets, and several tin boxes.
Observing that my inspection of his personal possessions is
detailed, Volpatte helps me to identify certain items--
"That, that's a leather officer's glove. I cut the fingers off to
stop up the mouth of my blunderbuss with; that, that's telephone
wire, the only thing to fasten buttons on your greatcoat with if you
want 'em to stay there; and here, inside here, d'you know what that
is? White thread, good stuff, not what you're put off with when they
give you new things, a sort of macaroni au fromage that you pull out
with a fork; and there's a set of needles on a post-card. The
safety-pins, they're there, separate."
"And here, that's the paper department. Quite a library."
There is indeed a surprising collection of papers among the things
disgorged by Volpatte's pockets--the violet packet of writing-paper,
whose unworthy printed envelope is out at heels; an Army squad-book,
of which the dirty and desiccated binding, like the skin of an old
tramp, has perished and shrunk all over: a note-book with a chafed
moleskin cover, and packed with papers and photographs, those of his
wife and children enthroned in the middle.
Out of this bundle of yellowed and darkened papers Volpatte extracts
this photograph and shows it to me once more. I renew acquaintance
with Madame Volpatte and her generous bosom, her mild and mellow
features; and with the two little boys in white collars, the elder
slender, the younger round as a ball.
"I've only got photos of old people," says Biquet, who is twenty
years old. He shows us a portrait holding it close to the candle, of
two aged people who look at us with the same well-behaved air as
"I've got mine with me, too," says another; "I always stick to the
photo of the nestlings."
"Course! Every man carries his crowd along," adds another.
"It's funny," Barque declares, "a portrait wears itself out just
with being looked at. You haven't got to gape at it too often, or be
too long about it; in the long run, I don't know what happens, but
the likeness mizzles."
"You're right," says Blaire, "I've found it like that too,
"I've got a map of the district as well, among my papers," Volpatte
continues. He unfolds it to the light. Illegible and transparent at
the creases, it looks like one of those window-blinds made of
squares sewn together.
"I've some newspaper too"--he unfolds a newspaper article upon
poilus--"and a book"--a twopence-half-penny novel, called Twice a
Maid--"Tiens, another newspaper cutting from the Etampes Bee. Don't
know why I've kept that, but there must be a reason somewhere. I'll
think about it when I have time. And then, my pack of cards, and a
set of draughts, with a paper board and the pieces made of
Barque comes up, regards the scene, and says, "I've a lot more
things than that in my pockets." He addresses himself to Volpatte.
"Have you got a Boche pay-book, louse-head, some phials of iodine,
and a Browning? I've all that, and two knives."
"I've no revolver," says Volpatte, "nor a Boche pay-book, but I
could have had two knives or even ten knives; but I only need one."
"That depends," says Barque. "And have you any mechanical buttons,
"I haven't any," cries Becuwe.
"The private can't do without 'em," Lamuse asserts. "Without them,
to make your braces stick to your breeches, the game's up."
"And I've always got in my pocket," says Blaire, "so's they're
within reach, my case of rings." He brings it cut, wrapped up in a
gas-mask bag, and shakes it. The files ring inside, and we hear the
jingle of aluminium rings in the rough.
"I've always got string," says Biquet, "that's the useful stuff!"
"Not so useful as nails," says Pepin, and he shows three in
his hand, big, little, and average.
One by one the others come to join in the conversation. to chaffer
and cadge. We are getting used to the half-darkness. But Corporal
Salavert, who has a well-earned reputation for dexterity, makes a
banging lamp with a candle and a tray, the latter contrived from a
Camembert box and some wire. We light up, and around its
illumination each man tells what he has in his pockets, with
parental preferences and bias.
"To begin with, how many have we?"
"How many pockets? Eighteen," says some one--Cocon, of course, the
man of figures.
"Eighteen pockets! You're codding, rat-nose," says big Lamuse.
"Exactly eighteen," replies Cocon. "Count them, if you're as clever
as all that."
Lamuse is willing to be guided by reason in the matter, and putting
his two hands near the light so as to count accurately, he tells off
his great brick-red fingers: Two pockets in the back of the
greatcoat; one for the first-aid packet, which is used for tobacco;
two inside the greatcoat in front; two outside it on each side, with
flaps; three in the trousers, and even three and a half, counting
the little one in front.
"I'll bet a compass on it," says Farfadet.
'And I, my bits of tinder."
"I," says Tirloir, "I'll bet a teeny whistle that my wife sent me
when she said, 'If you're wounded in the battle you must whistle, so
that your comrades will come and save your life.'"
We laugh at the artless words. Tulacque intervenes, and says
indulgently to Tiloir, "They don't know what war is back there; and
if you started talking about the rear, it'd be you that'd talk rot."
"We won't count that pocket," says Salavert, "it's too small. That
"In the jacket, four. That only makes fourteen after all."
"There are the two cartridge pockets, the two new ones that fasten
"Sixteen," says Salavert.
"Now, blockhead and son of misery, turn my jacket back. You haven't
counted those two pockets. Now then, what more do you want? And yet
they're just in the usual place. They're your civilian pockets,
where you shoved your nose-rag, your tobacco, and the address where
you'd got to deliver your parcel when you were a messenger."
"Eighteen!" says Salavert, as grave as a judge. "There are eighteen,
and no mistake; that's done it."
At this point in the conversation, some one makes a series of noisy
stumbles on the stones of the threshold with the sound of a horse
pawing the ground--and blaspheming. Then, after a silence, the
barking of a sonorous and authoritative voice--"Hey, inside there!
Getting ready? Everything must be fixed up this evening and packed
tight and solid, you know. Going into the first line this time, and
we may have a hot time of it."
"Right you are, right you are, mon adjutant." heedless voices
"How do you write 'Arnesse'?" asks Benech, who is on all fours, at
work with a pencil and an envelope. While Cocon spells "Ernest" for
him and the voice of the vanished adjutant is heard afar repeating
his harangue, Blaire picks up the thread, and says--
"You should always, my children--listen to what I'm telling you--put
your drinking-cup in your pocket. I've tried to stick it everywhere
else, but only the pocket's really practical, you take my word. If
you're in marching order, or if you've doffed your kit to navigate
the trenches either, you've always got it under your fist when
chances come, like when a pal who's got some gargle, and feels good
towards you says, 'Lend us your cup,' or a peddling wine-seller,
either. My young bucks, listen to what I tell you; you'll always
find it good--put your cup in your pocket."
"No fear," says Lamuse, "you won't see me put my cup in my pocket;
damned silly idea, no more or less. I'd a sight sooner sling it on a
strap with a hook."
"Fasten it on a greatcoat button, like the gas-helmet bag, that's a
lot better; for suppose you take off your accouterments and there's
any wine passing, you look soft."
"I've got a Boche drinking-cup," says Barque; "it's flat, so it goes
into a side pocket if you like, or it goes very well into a
cartridge-pouch, once you've fired the damn things off or pitched
them into a bag."
"A Boche cup's nothing special," says Pepin; "it won't stand
up, it's just lumber."
"You wait and see, maggot-snout," says Tirette, who is something of
a psychologist. "If we attack this time, same as the adjutant seemed
to hint, perhaps you'll find a Boche cup, and then it'll be
"The adjutant may have said that," Eudore observes. "but he doesn't
"It holds more than a half-pint, the Boche cup," remarks Cocon,
"seeing that the exact capacity of the half-pint is marked in the
cup three-quarters way up; and it's always good for you to have a
big one, for if you've got a cup that only just holds a half-pint,
then so that you can get your half-pint of coffee or wine or holy
water or what not, it's get to be filled right up, and they don't
ever do it at serving-out, and if they do, you spill it."
"I believe you that they don't fill it," says Paradis, exasperated
by the recollection of that ceremony. "The quartermaster-sergeant,
he pours it with his blasted finger in your cup and gives it two
raps on its bottom. Result, you get a third, and your cup's in
mourning with three black bands on top of each other."
"Yes," says Barque, "that's true; but you shouldn't have a cup too
big either, because the chap that's pouring it out for you, he
suspects you, and let's it go in damned drops, and so as not to give
you more than your measure he gives you less, and you can whistle
for it. with your tureen in your fists."
Volpatte puts back in his pockets, one by one, the items of his
display. When he came to the purse, he looked at it with an air of
"He's damnably flat, poor chap!" He counted the contents. "Three
francs! My boy, I most set about feathering this nest again or I
shall be stony when we get back."
"You're not the only one that's broken-backed in the treasury."
"The soldier spends more than he earns, and don't you forget it. I
wonder what'd become of a man that only had his pay?"
Paradis replies with concise simplicity, "He'd kick the bucket."
"And see here, look what I've got in my pocket and never let go
of"--Pepin, with merry eyes, shows us some silver
table-things. "They belonged," he says, "to the ugly trollop where
we were quartered at Grand-Rozoy."
"Perhaps they still belong to her?"
Pepin made an uncertain gesture, in which pride mingled with
modesty; then, growing bolder, he smiled and said, "I knew her, the
old sneak. Certainly, she'll spend the rest of her life looking in
every corner for her silver things."
"For my part," says Volpatte, "I've never been able to rake in more
than a pair of scissors. Some people have the luck. I haven't. So
naturally I watch 'em close, though I admit I've no use for 'em."
"I've pinched a few bits of things here and there, but what of it?
The sappers have always left me behind in the matter of pinching; so
what about it?"
"You can do what you like, you're always got at by some one in your
turn, eh, my boy? Don't fret about it."
"I keep my wife's letters," says Blaire.
"And I send mine back to her."
"And I keep them, too. Here they are." Eudore exposes a packet of
worn and shiny paper, whose grimy condition the twilight modestly
veils. "I keep them. Sometimes I read them again. When I'm cold and
humpy, I read 'em again. It doesn't actually warm you up, but it
There must be a deep significance in the curious expression, for
several men raise their heads and say, "Yes, that's so."
By fits and starts the conversation goes on in the bosom of this
fantastic barn and the great moving shadows that cross it; night is
heaped up in its corners, and pointed by a few scattered and sickly
I watch these busy and burdened flitters come and go, outline
themselves strangely, then stoop and slide down to the ground; they
talk to themselves and to each other. their feet are encumbered by
the litter. They are showing their riches to each other. "Tiens,
look!"--"Great!" they reply enviously.
What they have not got they want. There are treasures among the
squad long coveted by all; the two-liter water-bottle, for instance,
preserved by Barque, that a skillful rifle-shot with a blank
cartridge has stretched to the capacity of two and a half liters;
and Bertrand's famous great knife with the horn handle.
Among the heaving swarm there are sidelong glances that skim these
curiosities, and then each man resumes "eyes right," devotes himself
to his belongings, and concentrates upon getting it in order.
They are mournful belongings, indeed. Everything made for the
soldier is commonplace, ugly, and of bad quality; from his cardboard
boots, attached to the uppers by a criss-cross of worthless thread,
to his badly cut, badly shaped, and badly sewn clothes, made of
shoddy and transparent cloth--blotting-paper--that one day of
sunshine fades and an hour of rain wets through, to his emaciated
leathers, brittle as shavings and torn by the buckle spikes, to his
flannel underwear that is thinner than cotton, to his straw-like
Marthereau is beside me, and he points to our comrades: "Look at
them, these poor chaps gaping into their bags o' tricks. You'd say
it was a mothers' meeting, ogling their kids. Hark to 'em. They're
calling for their knick-knacks. Tiens, that one, the times he says
'My knife!' same as if be was calling 'Lon,' or 'Charles,' or
'Dolphus.' And you know it's impossible for them to make their load
any less. Can't be did. It isn't that they don't want--our job isn't
one that makes us any stronger, eh? But they can't. Too proud of
The burdens to be borne are formidable, and one knows well enough,
parbleu, that every item makes them more severe, each little
addition is one bruise more.
For it is not merely a matter of what one buries in his pockets and
pouches. To complete the burden there is what one carries on his
back. The knapsack is the trunk and even the cupboard; and the old
soldier is familiar with the art of enlarging it almost miraculously
by the judicious disposal of his household goods and provisions.
Besides the regulation and obligatory contents--two tins of pressed
beef, a dozen biscuits, two tablets of coffee and two packets of
dried soup, the bag of sugar, fatigue smock, and spare boots--we
find a way of getting in some pots of jam, tobacco, chocolate,
candles, soft-soled shoes; and even soap, a spirit lamp, some
solidified spirit, and some woolen things. With the blanket, sheet,
tentcloth, trenching-tool, water-bottle, and an item of the
field-cooking kit, [note 1] the burden gets heavier and taller and
wider, monumental and crushing. And my neighbor says truly that
every time he reaches his goal after some miles of highway and
communication trenches, the poilu swears hard that the next time
he'll leave a heap of things behind and give his shoulders a little
relief from the yoke of the knapsack. But every time he is preparing
for departure, he assumes again the same overbearing and almost
superhuman load; he never lets it go, though he curses it always.
"There are some bad boys," says Lamuse, "among the shirkers, that
find a way of keeping something in the company wagon or the medical
van. I know one that's got two shirts and a pair of drawers in an
adjutant's canteen [note 2]--but, you see, there's two hundred and
fifty chaps in the company, and they're all up to the dodge and not
many of 'em can profit by it; it's chiefly the non-coms.; the more
stripes they've got, the easier it is to plant their luggage, not
forgetting that the commandant visits the wagons sometimes without
warning and fires your things into the middle of the road if he
finds 'em in a horse-box where they've no business--Be off with
you!--not to mention the bully-ragging and the clink."
"In the early days it was all right, my boy. There were some
chaps--I've seen 'em--who stuck their bags and even their knapsacks
in baby-carts and pushed 'em along the road."
"Ah, not half! Those were the good times of the war. But all that's
Volpatte, deaf to all the talk, muffled in his blanket as if in a
shawl which makes him look like an old witch, revolves round an
object that lies on the ground. "I'm wondering," lie says,
addressing no one, "whether to take away this damned tin stove. It's
the only one in the squad and I've always carried it. Oui, but it
leaks like a cullender." He cannot decide, and makes a really
pathetic picture of separation.
Barque watches him obliquely, and makes fun of him. We hear him say,
"Senile dodderer!" But he pauses in his chaffing to say, "After all,
if we were in his shoes we should be equally fatheaded."
Volpatte postpones his decision till later. "I'll see about it in
the morning, when I'm loading the camel's back."
After the inspection and recharging of pockets, it is the turn of
the bags, and then of the cartridge-pouches, and Barque holds forth
on the way to make the regulation two hundred cartridges go into the
three pouches. In the lump it is impossible. They must be unpacked
and placed side by side upright, head against foot. Thus can one
cram each pouch without leaving any space, and make himself a
waistband that weighs over twelve pounds.
Rifles have been cleaned already. One looks to the swathing of the
breech and the plugging of the muzzle, precautions which trench-dirt
How every rifle can easily be recognized is discussed. "I've made
some nicks in the sling. See, I've cut into the edge."
"I've twisted a bootlace round the top of the sling, and that way, I
can tell it by touch as well as seeing."
"I use a mechanical button. No mistake about that. In the dark I can
find it at once and say, 'That's my pea-shooter. Because, you know,
there are some boys that don't bother themselves; they just roll
around while the pals are cleaning theirs, and then they're devilish
quick at putting a quiet fist on a popgun that's been cleaned; and
then after they've even the cheek to go and say, 'Mon capitaine,
I've got a rifle that's a bit of all right.' I'm not on in that act.
It's the D system, my old wonder--a damned dirty dodge, and there
are times when I'm fed up with it, and more."
And thus, though their rifles are all alike, they are as different
as their handwriting.
* * * * * *
"It's curious and funny," says Marthereau to me "we're going up to
the trenches to-morrow, and there's nobody drunk yet, nor that way
inclined. Ah, I don't say," he concedes at once, "but what those two
there aren't a bit fresh, nor a little elevated; without being
absolutely blind, they're somewhat boozed, pr'aps--"
"It's Poitron and Poilpot, of Broyer's squad."
They are lying down and talking in a low voice. We can make out the
round nose of one, which stands out equally with his mouth, close by
a candle, and with his hand, whose lifted finger makes little
explanatory signs, faithfully followed by the shadow it casts.
"I know how to light a fire, but I don't know how to light it again
when it's gone out," declares Poitron.
"Ass!" says Poilpot, "if you know how to light it you know how to
relight it, seeing that if you light it, it's because it's gone out,
and you might say that you're relighting it when you're lighting
"That's all rot. I'm not mathematical, and to hell with the
gibberish you talk. I tell you and I tell you again that when it
comes to lighting a fire, I'm there, but to light it again when it's
gone out, I'm no good. I can't speak any straighter than that."
I do not catch the insistent retort of Poilpot, but--"But, you
damned numskull," gurgles Poitron, "haven't I told you thirty times
that I can't? You must have a pig's head, anyway!"
Marthereau confides to me, "I've heard about enough of that."
Obviously he spoke too soon just now.
A sort of fever, provoked by farewell libations, prevails in the
wretched straw-spread hole where our tribe--some upright and
hesitant, others kneeling and hammering like colliers--is mending,
stacking, and subduing its provisions, clothes, and tools. There is
a wordy growling, a riot of gesture. From the smoky glimmers,
rubicund faces start forth in relief, and dark hands move about in
the shadows like marionettes. In the barn next to ours, and
separated from it only by a wall of a man's height, arise tipsy
shouts. Two men in there have fallen upon each other with fierce
violence and anger. The air is vibrant with the coarsest expressions
the human ear ever hears. But one of the disputants, a stranger from
another squad, is ejected by the tenants, and the flow of curses
from the other grows feebler and expires.
"Same as us," says Marthereau with a certain pride, "they hold
It is true. Thanks to Bertrand, who is possessed by a hatred of
drunkenness, of the fatal poison that gambles with multitudes, our
squad is one of the least befouled by wine and brandy.
They are shouting and singing and talking all around. And they laugh
endlessly, for in the human mechanism laughter is the sound of
wheels that work, of deeds that are done.
One tries to fathom certain faces that show up in provocative relief
among this menagerie of shadows, this aviary of reflections. But one
cannot. They are visible, but you can see nothing in the depth of
* * * * * *
"Ten o'clock already, friends," says Bertrand. "We'll finish the
camel's humps off to-morrow. Time for by-by." Each one then slowly
retires to rest, but the jabbering hardly pauses. Man takes all
things easily when he is under no obligation to hurry. The men go to
and fro, each with some object in his hand, and along the wall I
watch Eudore's huge shadow gliding, as he passes in front of a
candle with two little bags of camphor hanging from the end of his
Lamuse is throwing himself about in search of a good position; he
seems ill at ease. To-day, obviously. and whatever his capacity may
be, he has eaten too much.
"Some of us want to sleep! Shut them up, you lot of louts!" cries
Mesnil Joseph from his litter.
This entreaty has a subduing effect for a moment, but does not stop
the burble of voices nor the passing to and fro.
"We're going up to-morrow, it's true," says Paradis, "and in the
evening we shall go into the first line. But nobody's thinking about
it. We know it, and that's all."
Gradually each has regained his place. I have stretched myself on
the straw, and Marthereau wraps himself up by my side.
Enter an enormous bulk, taking great pains not to make a noise. It
is the field-hospital sergeant, a Marist Brother, a huge bearded
simpleton in spectacles. When he has taken off his greatcoat and
appears in his jacket, you are conscious that he feels awkward about
showing his legs. We see that it hurries discreetly, this silhouette
of a bearded hippopotamus. He blows, sighs, and mutters.
Marthereau indicates him with a nod of his bead, and says to me,
"Look at him. Those chaps have always got to be talking fudge. When
we ask him what he does in civil life, he won't say 'I'm a school
teacher' he says, leering at you from under his specs with the half
of his eyes, 'I'm a professor.' When he gets up very early to go to
mass, he says, 'I've got belly-ache, I must go and take a turn round
the corner and no mistake.'"
A little farther off, Papa Ramure is talking of his homeland: "Where
I live, it's just a bit of a hamlet, no great shakes. There's my old
man there, seasoning pipes all day long; whether he's working or
resting, he blows his smoke up to the sky or into the smoke of the
I listen to this rural idyll, and it takes suddenly a specialized
and technical character: "That's why he makes a paillon. D'you know
what a paillon is? You take a stalk of green corn and peel it. You
split it in two and then in two again, and you have different sizes.
Then with a thread and the four slips of straw, he goes round the
stem of his pipe--"
The lesson ceases abruptly, there being no apparent audience.
There are only two candles alight. A wide wing of darkness
overspreads the prostrate collection of men.
Private conversation still flickers along the primitive dormitory,
and some fragments of it reach my ears. Just now, Papa Ramure is
abusing the commandant.
"The commandant, old man, with his four bits of gold string, I've
noticed he don't know how to smoke. He sucks all out at his pipes,
and he burns 'em. It isn't a mouth he's got in his head, it's a
snout. The wood splits and scorches, and instead of being wood, it's
coal. Clay pipes, they'll stick it better, but he roasts 'em brown
all the same. Talk about a snout! So, old man, mind what I'm telling
you, he'll come to what doesn't ever happen often; through being
forced to get white-hot and baked to the marrow, his pipe'll explode
in his nose before everybody. You'll see."
Little by little, peace, silence, and darkness take possession of
the barn and enshroud the hopes and the sighs of its occupants. The
lines of identical bundles formed by these beings rolled up side by
side in their blankets seem a sort of huge organ, which sends forth
With his nose already in his blanket, I hear Marthereau talking to
me about himself: "I'm a buyer of rags, you know," he says, "or to
put it better, a rag merchant. But me, I'm wholesale; I buy from the
little rag-and-bone men of the streets, and I have a shop--a
warehouse mind you!--which I use as a depot. I deal in all kinds of
rags, from linen to jam-pots, but principally brush-handles, sacks,
and old shoes; and naturally, I make a specialty of rabbit-skins."
And a little later I still hear him: "As for me, little and
queer-shaped as I am, all the same I can carry a bin of two hundred
pounds' weight to the warehouse. up the steps, and my feet in
sabots. Once I had a to-do with a person--"
"What I can't abide," cries Fouillade, all of a sudden, "is the
exercises and marches they give us when we're resting. My back's
mincemeat, and I can't get a snooze even, I'm that cramped."
There is a metallic noise in Volpatte's direction. He has decided to
take the stove, though he chides it constantly for the fatal fault
of its perforations.
One who is but half asleep groans, "Oh, la, la! When will this war
A cry of stubborn and mysterious rebellion bursts forth--"They'd
take the very skin off us!"
There follows a single, "Don't fret yourself!" as darkly
inconsequent as the cry of revolt.
I wake up a long time afterwards, as two o'clock is striking; and in
a pallor of light which doubtless comes from the moon, I see the
agitated silhouette of Pinegal. A cock has crowed afar.
Pinegal raises himself halfway to a sitting position, and I
hear his husky voice: "Well now, it's the middle of the night, and
there's a cock loosing his jaw. He's blind drunk, that cock." He
laughs, and repeats, "He's blind, that cock," and he twists himself
again into the woolens, and resumes his slumber with a gurgle in
which snores are mingled with merriment.
Cocon has been wakened by Pinegal. The man of figures
therefore thinks aloud, and says: "The squad had seventeen men when
it set off for the war. It has seventeen also at present, with the
stop-gaps. Each man has already worn out four greatcoats, one of the
original blue, and three cigar-smoke blue, two pairs of trousers and
six pairs of boots. One must count two rifles to each man, but one
can't count the overalls. Our emergency rations have been renewed
twenty-three times. Among us seventeen, we've been mentioned
fourteen times in Army Orders, of which two were to the Brigade,
four to the Division, and one to the Army. Once we stayed sixteen
days in the trenches without relief. We've been quartered and lodged
in forty-seven different villages up to now. Since the beginning of
the campaign, twelve thousand men have passed through the regiment,
which consists of two thousand."
A strange lisping noise interrupts him. It comes from Blaire, whose
new ivories prevent him from talking as they also prevent him from
eating. But he puts them in every evening, and retains them all
night with fierce determination, for he was promised that in the end
he would grow accustomed to the object they have put into his head.
I raise myself on my elbow, as on a battlefield, and look once more
on the beings whom the scenes and happenings of the times have
rolled up all together. I look at them all, plunged in the abyss of
passive oblivion, some of them seeming still to be absorbed in their
pitiful anxieties, their childish instincts, and their slave-like
The intoxication of sleep masters me. But I recall what they have
done and what they will do; and with that consummate picture of a
sorry human night before me, a shroud that fills our cavern with
darkness, I dream of some great unknown light.
[note 1] There is a complete set for each squad--stoves, canvas
buckets, coffee-mill, pan, etc--and each man carries some item on
[note 2] Cantine vivres, chest containing two days' rations and
cooking utensils for four or five officers.--Tr.
WE were badly off, hungry and thirsty; and in these wretched
quarters there was nothing!
Something had gone wrong with the revictualing department and our
wants were becoming acute. Where the sorry place surrounded them,
with its empty doors, its bones of houses, and its bald-headed
telegraph posts. a crowd of hungry men were grinding their teeth and
confirming the absence of everything:--"The juice has sloped and the
wine's up the spout, and the bully's zero. Cheese? Nix. Napoo jam,
napoo butter on skewers."
"We've nothing, and no error, nothing; and play hell as you like, it
"Talk about rotten quarters! Three houses with nothing inside but
draughts and damp."
"No good having any of the filthy here, you might as well have only
the skin of a bob in your purse, as long as there's nothing to buy."
"You might be a Rothschild, or even a military tailor, but what
use'd your brass be?"
"Yesterday there was a bit of a cat mewing round where the 7th are.
I feel sure they've eaten it."
"Yes, there was; you could see its ribs like rocks on the
"There were some chaps," says Blaire, "who bustled about when they
got here and managed to find a few bottles of common wine at the
bacca-shop at the corner of the street."
"Ah, the swine! Lucky devils to be sliding that down their necks."
"It was muck, all the same, it'd make your cup as black as your
"There are some, they say, who've swallowed a fowl."
"Damn," says Fouillade.
"I've hardly had a bite. I had a sardine left, and a little tea in
the bottom of a bag that I chewed up with some sugar."
"You can't even have a bit of a drunk--it's off the map."
"And that isn't enough either, even when you're not a big eater and
you're got a communication trench as flat as a pancake."
"One meal in two days--a yellow mess, shining like gold, no broth
and no meat--everything left behind."
"And worst of all we've nothing to light a pipe with."
"True, and that's misery. I haven't a single match. I had several
bits of ends, but they've gone. I've hunted in vain through all the
pockets of my flea-case--nix. As for buying them it's hopeless, as
"I've got the head of a match that I'm keeping." It is a real
hardship indeed, and the sight is pitiful of the poilus who cannot
light pipe or cigarette but put them away in their pockets and
stroll in resignation. By good fortune, Tirloir has his petrol
pipe-lighter and it still contains a little spirit. Those who are
aware of it gather round him, bringing their pipes packed and cold.
There is not even any paper to light, and the flame itself must be
used until the remaining spirit in its tiny insect's belly is
As for me, I've been lucky, and I see Paradis wandering about, his
kindly face to the wind, grumbling and chewing a bit of wood.
"Tiens," I say to him, "take this."
"A box of matches!" he exclaims amazed, looking at it as one looks
at a jewel. "Egad! That's capital! Matches!"
A moment later we see him lighting his pipe, his face saucily
sideways and splendidly crimsoned by the reflected flame, and
everybody shouts, "Paradis' got some matches!"
Towards evening I meet Paradis near the ruined triangle of a
house-front at the corner of the two streets of this most miserable
He beckons to me. "Hist!" He has a curious and rather awkward air.
"I say," he says to me affectionately, but looking at his feet, "a
bit since, you chucked me a box of flamers. Well, you're going to
get a bit of your own back for it. Here!"
He puts something in my hand. "Be careful!" he whispers, "it's
Dazzled by the resplendent purity of his present. hardly even daring
to believe my eyes, I see--an egg!
"REALLY and truly," said Paradis, my neighbor in the ranks, "believe
me or not, I'm knocked out--I've never before been so paid on a
march as I have been with this one, this evening."
His feet were dragging, and his square shoulders bowed under the
burden of the knapsack, whose height and big irregular outline
seemed almost fantastic. Twice he tripped and stumbled.
Paradis is tough. But he had been running up and down the trench all
night as liaison man while the others were sleeping, so he had good
reason to be exhausted and to growl "Quoi? These kilometers must be
made of india-rubber, there's no way out of it."
Every three steps he hoisted his knapsack roughly up with a hitch of
his hips, and panted under its dragging; and all the heap that he
made with his bundles tossed and creaked like an overloaded wagon.
"We're there," said a non-com.
Non-coms. always say that, on every occasion. But--in spite of the
non-com.'s declaration--we were really arriving in a twilight
village which seemed to be drawn in white chalk and heavy strokes of
black upon the blue paper of the sky, where the sable silhouette of
the church--a pointed tower flanked by two turrets more slender and
more sharp--was that of a tall cypress.
But the soldier, even when he enters the village where he is to be
quartered, has not reached the end of his troubles. It rarely
happens that either the squad or the section actually lodges in the
place assigned to them, and this by reason of misunderstandings and
cross purposes which tangle and disentangle themselves on the spot;
and it is only after several quarter-hours of tribulation that each
man is led to his actual shelter of the moment.
So after the usual wanderings we were admitted to our night's
lodging--a roof supported by four posts, and with the four quarters
of the compass for its walls. But it was a good roof--an advantage
which we could appreciate. It was already sheltering a cart and a
plow, and we settled ourselves by them. Paradis, who had fumed and
complained without ceasing during the hour we had spent in tramping
to and fro, threw down his knapsack and then himself, and stayed
there awhile, weary to the utmost, protesting that his limbs were
benumbed, that the soles of his feet were painful, and indeed all
the rest of him.
But now the house to which our hanging roof was subject, the house
which stood just in front of us, was lighted up. Nothing attracts a
soldier in the gray monotony of evening so much as a window whence
beams the star of a lamp.
"Shall we have a squint?" proposed Volpatte.
"So be it," said Paradis. He gets up gradually, and hobbling with
weariness, steers himself towards the golden window that has
appeared in the gloom, and then towards the door. Volpatte follows
him, and I Volpatte.
We enter, and ask the old man who has let us in and whose twinkling
head is as threadbare as an old hat, if he has any wine to sell.
"No," replies the old man, shaking his head, where a little white
fluff crops out in places.
"No beer? No coffee? Anything at all--"
"No, mes amis, nothing of anything. We don't belong here; we're
refugees, you know."
"Then seeing there's nothing, we'll be off." We right-about face. At
least we have enjoyed for a moment the warmth which pervades the
house and a sight of the lamp. Already Volpatte has gained the
threshold and his back is disappearing in the darkness.
But I espy an old woman, sunk in the depths of a chair in the other
corner of the kitchen, who appears to have some busy occupation.
I pinch Paradis' arm. "There's the belle of the house. Shall we pay
our addresses to her?"
Paradis makes a gesture of lordly indifference. He has lost interest
in women--all those he has seen for a year and a half were not for
him; and moreover, even when they would like to be his, he is
"Young or old--pooh!" he says to me, beginning to yawn. For want of
something to do and to lengthen the leaving, he goes up to the
goodwife. "Good-evening, gran'ma," he mumbles, finishing his yawn.
"Good-evening, mes enfants," quavers the old dame. So near, we see
her in detail. She is shriveled, bent and bowed in her old bones,
and the whole of her face is white as the dial of a clock.
And what is she doing? Wedged between her chair and the edge of the
table she is trying to clean some boots. It is a heavy task for her
infantile hands; their movements are uncertain, and her strokes with
the brush sometimes go astray. The boots, too, are very dirty
Seeing that we are watching her, she whispers to us that she must
polish them well, and this evening too, for they are her little
girl's boots, who is a dressmaker in the town and goes off first
thing in the morning.
Paradis has stooped to look at the boots more closely, and suddenly
he puts his hand out towards them. "Drop it, gran'ma; I'll spruce up
your lass's trotter-cases for you in three secs."
The old woman lodges an objection by shaking her head and her
shoulders. But Paradis takes the boots with authority, while the
grandmother, paralyzed by her weakness, argues the question and
opposes us with shadowy protest.
Paradis has taken a boot in each hand; he holds them gingerly and
looks at them for a moment, and you would even say that he was
squeezing them a little.
"Aren't they small!" he says in a voice which is not what we hear in
the usual way.
He has secured the brushes as well, and sets himself to wielding
them with zealous carefulness. I notice that he is smiling, with his
eyes fixed on his work.
Then, when the mud has gone from the boots, he takes some polish on
the end of the double-pointed brush and caresses them with it
They are dainty boots--quite those of a stylish young lady; rows of
little buttons shine on them.
"Not a single button missing," he whispers to me, and there is pride
in his tone.
He is no longer sleepy; he yawns no more. On the contrary, his lips
are tightly closed; a gleam of youth and spring-time lights up his
face; and he who was on the point of going to sleep seems just to
have woke up.
And where the polish has bestowed a beautiful black his fingers move
over the body of the boot, which opens widely in the upper part and
betrays--ever such a little--the lower curves of the leg. His
fingers, so skilled in polishing, are rather awkward all the same as
they turn the boots over and turn them again, as he smiles at them
and ponders--profoundly and afar--while the old woman lifts her arms
in the air and calls me to witness "What a very kind soldier!" he
It is finished. The boots are cleaned and finished off in style;
they are like mirrors. Nothing is left to do.
He puts them on the edge of the table, very carefully, as if they
were saintly relics; then at last his hands let them go. But his
eyes do not at once leave them. He looks at them, and then lowering
his head, he looks at his own boots. I remember that while he made
this comparison the great lad--a hero by destiny, a Bohemian, a
monk--smiled once more with all his heart.
The old woman was showing signs of activity in the depths of her
chair; she had an idea. "I'll tell her! She shall thank you herself,
monsieur! Hey, Josephine!" she cried, turning towards a door.
But Paradis stopped her with an expansive gesture which I thought
magnificent. "No, it's not worth while, gran'ma; leave her where she
is. We're going. We won't trouble her, allez!"
Such decision sounded in his voice that it carried authority, and
the old woman obediently sank into inactivity and held her peace.
We went away to our bed under the wall-less roof, between the arms
of the plow that was waiting for us. And then Paradis began again to
yawn; but by the light of the candle in our crib, a full minute
later, I saw that the happy smile remained yet on his face.
In the Sap
IN the excitement of a distribution of letters from which the squad
were returning--some with the delight of a letter, some with the
semi-delight of a postcard, and others with a new load (speedily
reassumed) of expectation and hope--a comrade comes with a
brandished newspaper to tell us an amazing story--"Tu sais, the
weasel-faced ancient at Gauchin?"
"The old boy who was treasure-seeking?"
"Well, he's found it!"
"It's just as I tell you, you great lump! What would you like me to
say to you? Mass? Don't know it. Anyway, the yard of his place has
been bombed, and a chest full of money was turned up out of the
ground near a wall. He got his treasure full on the back. And now
the parson's quietly cut in and talks about claiming credit for the
We listen open-mouthed. "A treasure--well! well! The old bald-head!"
The sudden revelation plunges us in an abyss of reflection. "And to
think how damned sick we were of the old cackler when he made such a
song about his treasure and dinned it into our ears!"
"We were right enough down there, you remember, when we were saying
'One never knows.' Didn't guess how near we were to being right,
"All the same, there are some things you can be sure of," says
Farfadet, who as soon as Gauchin was mentioned had remained dreaming
and distant, as though a lovely face was smiling on him. "But as for
this," he added, "I'd never have believed it either! Shan't I find
him stuck up, the old ruin, when I go back there after the war!"
* * * * * *
"They want a willing man to help the sappers with a job," says the
"Not likely!" growl the men, without moving.
"It'll be of use in relieving the boys," the adjutant goes on.
With that the grumbling ceases, and several heads are raised.
"Here!" says Lamuse.
"Get into your harness, big 'un, and come with me." Lamuse buckles
on his knapsack, rolls up his blanket, and fetters his pouches.
Since his seizure of unlucky affection was allayed, he has become
more melancholy than before, and although a sort of fatality makes
him continually stouter, he has become engrossed and isolated, and
In the evening something comes along the trench, rising and falling
according to the lumps and holes in the ground; a shape that seems
in the shadows to be swimming, that outspreads its arms sometimes,
as though appealing for help. It is Lamuse.
He is among us again, covered with mold and mud. He trembles and
streams with sweat, as one who is afraid. His lips stir, and he
gasps, before they can shape a word.
"Well, what is there?" we ask him vainly.
He collapses in a corner among us and prostrates himself. We offer
him wine, and he refuses it with a sign. Then he turns towards me
and beckons me with a movement of his head.
When I am by him he whispers to me, very low, and as if in church,
"I have seen Eudoxie again." He gasps for breath, his chest wheezes,
and with his eyeballs fast fixed upon a nightmare, he says, "She was
"It was the place we'd lost," Lamuse went on, "and that the
Colonials took again with the bayonet ten days ago.
"First we made a hole for the sap, and I was in at it. since I was
scooping more than the others I found myself in front. The others
were widening and making solid behind. But behold I find a jumble of
beams. I'd lit on an old trench, caved in, 'vidently; half caved
in--there was some space and room. In the middle of those stumps of
wood all mixed together that I was lifting away one by one from in
front of me, there was something like a big sandbag in height.
upright, and something on the top of it hanging down.
"And behold a plank gives way, and the queer sack falls on me, with
its weight on top. I was pegged down, and the smell of a corpse
filled my throat--on the top of the bundle there was a head, and it
was the hair that I'd seen hanging down.
"You understand, one couldn't see very well; but I recognized the
hair 'cause there isn't any other like it in the world, and then the
rest of the face, all stove in and moldy, the neck pulped, and all
the lot dead for a month perhaps. It was Eudoxie, I tell you.
"Yes, it was the woman I could never go near before, you know--that
I only saw a long way off and couldn't ever touch, same as diamonds.
She used to run about everywhere, you know. She used even to wander
in the lines. One day she must have stopped a bullet, and stayed
there, dead and lost, until the chance of this sap.
"You clinch the position? I was forced to hold her up with one arm
as well as I could, and work with the other. She was trying to fall
on me with all her weight. Old man, she wanted to kiss me, and I
didn't want--it was terrible. She seemed to be saying to me, 'You
wanted to kiss me, well then, come, come now!' She had on her--she
had there, fastened on, the remains of a bunch of flowers, and that
was rotten, too, and the posy stank in my nose like the corpse of
some little beast. "I had to take her in my arms, in both of them,
and turn gently round so that I could put her down on the other
side. The place was so narrow and pinched that as we turned, for a
moment, I hugged her to my breast and couldn't help it. with all my
strength, old chap, as I should have hugged her once on a time if
she'd have let me.
"I've been half an hour cleaning myself from the touch of her and
the smell that she breathed on me in spite of me and in spite of
herself. Ah, lucky for me that I'm as done up as a wretched
He turns over on his belly, clenches his fists, and slumbers, with
his face buried in the ground and his dubious dream of passion and
A Box of Matches
IT is five o'clock in the evening. Three men are seen moving in the
bottom of the gloomy trench. Around their extinguished fire in the
dirty excavation they are frightful to see, black and sinister. Rain
and negligence have put their fire out, and the four cooks are
looking at the corpses of brands that are shrouded in ashes and the
stumps of wood whence the flame has flown.
Volpatte staggers up to the group and throws down the black mass
that he had on his shoulder. "I've pulled it out of a dug-out where
it won't show much."
"We have wood," says Blaire, "but we've got to light it. Otherwise,
how are we going to cook this cab-horse?"
"It's a fine piece," wails a dark-faced man, "thin flank. In my
belief, that's the best bit of the beast, the flank."
"Fire?" Volpatte objects, "there are no more matches, no more
"We must have fire," growls Poupardin, whose indistinct bulk has the
proportions of a bear as he rolls and sways in the dark depths of
"No two ways about it, we've got to have it," Pepin agrees.
He is coming out of a dug-out like a sweep out of a chimney. His
gray mass emerges and appears, like night upon evening.
"Don't worry; I shall get some," declares Blaire in a concentrated
tone of angry decision. He has not been cook long, and is keen to
show himself quite equal to adverse conditions in the exercise of
He spoke as Martin Cesar used to speak when he was alive. His
aim is to resemble the great legendary figure of the cook who always
found ways for a fire, just as others, among the non-coms., would
fain imitate Napoleon.
"I shall go if it's necessary and fetch every bit of wood there is
at Battalion H.Q. I shall go and requisition the colonel's
matches--I shall go--"
"Let's go and forage." Poupardin leads the way. His face is like the
bottom of a saucepan that the fire has gradually befouled. As it is
cruelly cold, he is wrapped up all over. He wears a cape which is
half goatskin and half sheepskin, half brown and half whitish, and
this twofold skin of tints geometrically cut makes him like some
strange occult animal.
Pepin has a cotton cap so soiled and so shiny with grease
that it might be made of black silk. Volpatte, inside his Balaklava
and his fleeces, resembles a walking tree-trunk. A square opening
betrays a yellow face at the top of the thick and heavy bark of the
mass he makes, which is bifurcated by a couple of legs.
"Let's look up the 10th. They've always got the needful. They're on
the Pylones road, beyond the Boyau-Neuf."
The four alarming objects get under way, cloud-shape, in the trench
that unwinds itself sinuously before them like a blind alley,
unsafe, unlighted, and unpaved. It is uninhabited, too, in this
part, being a gangway between the second lines and the first lines.
In the dusty twilight two Moroccans meet the fire-questing cooks.
One has the skin of a black boot and the other of a yellow shoe.
Hope gleams in the depths of the cooks' hearts.
"Napoo," replies the black one, and his smile reveals his long
crockery-like teeth in his cigar-colored mouth of moroccan leather.
In his turn the yellow one advances and asks, "Tobacco? A bit of
tobacco?" And be holds out his greenish sleeve and his great hard
paw, in which the cracks are full of brown dirt, and the nails
Pepin growls, rummages in his clothes, and pulls out a pinch
of tobacco, mixed with dust, which he hands to the sharpshooter.
A little farther they meet a sentry who is half asleep--in the
middle of the evening--on a heap of loose earth. The drowsy soldier
says, "It's to the right, and then again to the right, and then
straight forward. Don't go wrong about it."
They march--for a long time. "We must have come a long way," says
Volpatte, after half an hour of fruitless paces and encloistered
"I say, we're going downhill a hell of a lot, don't you think?" asks
"Don't worry, old duffer," scoffs Pepin, "but if you've got
cold feet you can leave us to it."
Still we tramp on in the falling night. The ever-empty trench--a
desert of terrible length--has taken a shabby and singular
appearance. The parapets are in ruins; earthslides have made the
ground undulate in hillocks.
An indefinite uneasiness lays hold of the four huge fire-hunters,
and increases as night overwhelms them in this monstrous road.
Pepin, who is leading just now, stands fast and holds up his
hand as a signal to halt. "Footsteps," they say in a sobered tone.
Then, and in the heart of them, they are afraid. It was a mistake
for them all to leave their shelter for so long. They are to blame.
And one never knows.
"Get in there, quick, quick!" says Pepin, pointing to a
right-angled cranny on the ground level.
By the test of a hand, the rectangular shadow is proved to be the
entry to a funk-hole. They crawl in singly; and the last one,
impatient, pushes the others; they become an involuntary carpet in
the dense darkness of the hole.
A sound of steps and of voices becomes distinct and draws nearer.
From the mass of the four men who tightly hung up the burrow,
tentative hands are put out at a venture. All at once Pepin
murmurs in a stifled voice, "What's this?"
"What?" ask the others, pressed and wedged against him.
"Clips!" says Pepin under his breath, "Boche cartridge-clips
on the shelf! We're in the Boche trench!"
"Let's hop it." Three men make a jump to get out.
"Look out, bon Dieu! Don't stir!--footsteps--"
They hear some one walking, with the quick step of a solitary man.
They keep still and bold their breath. With their eyes fixed on the
ground level, they see the darkness moving on the right, and then a
shadow with legs detaches itself, approaches, and passes. The shadow
assumes an outline. It is topped by a helmet covered with a cloth
and rising to a point. There is no other sound than that of his
Hardly has the German gone by when the four cooks, with no concerted
plan and with a single movement, burst forth, jostling each other,
run like madmen, and hurl themselves on him.
"Kamerad, messieurs!" he says.
But the blade of a knife gleams and disappears. The man collapses as
if he would plunge into the ground. Pepin seizes the helmet
as the Boche is failing and keeps it in his hand.
"Let's leg it," growls the voice of Poupardin.
"Got to search him first!"
They lift him and turn him over, and set the soft, damp and warm
body up again. Suddenly he coughs.
"He isn't dead!"--"Yes, he is dead; that's the air."
They shake him by the pockets; with hasty breathing the four black
men stoop over their task. "The helmet's mine," says Pepin.
"It was me that knifed him, I want the helmet."
They tear from the body its pocket-book of still warm papers, its
field-glass, purse, and leggings.
"Matches!" shouts Blaire, shaking a box, "he's got some!"
"Ah, the fool that you are!" hisses Volpatte.
"Now let's be off like hell." They pile the body in a corner and
break into a run, prey to a sort of panic, and regardless of the row
their disordered flight makes.
"It's this way!--This way!--Hurry, lads--for all you're worth!"
Without speaking they dash across the maze of the strangely empty
trench that seems to have no end.
"My wind's gone," says Blaire, "I'm--" He staggers and stops.
"Come on, buck up, old chap," gasps Pepin, hoarse and
breathless. He takes him by the sleeve and drags him forward like a
'We're right!" says Poupardin suddenly. "Yes, I remember that tree.
It's the Pylones road!"
"Ah!" wails Blaire, whose breathing is shaking him like an engine.
He throws himself forward with a last impulse--and sits down on the
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