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RÉCHOUSSAT was repeating, with a weak and constrained laugh: "All the same, I tell you they won't come."
Corporal Têtard turned a deaf ear. He was arranging his paraphernalia on a table: the compresses, the oil, the rubber gloves which resembled slightly those of a fencer, the probes, fastened to a tube like great pods of vanilla, a basin of enameled iron that looked like an immense bean, and a receptacle of glass with a big belly and a large mouth, that looked like nothing at all.
Réchoussat assumed an air of unconcern: "They can come or not as they choose. I don't care a hang."
Corporal Têtard shrugged his shoulders and answered: "But I tell you they will come!"
The wounded man shook his head obstinately: "Here! my poor fellow, no one comes here. All those people who come down-stairs, well, they never come up here. That's how it is, I tell you; but I don't care a hang."
"You may be certain they will come."
"And besides, I don't know why they've put me in this little room, all alone."
"Probably because you have to be quiet."
"Whether they come or whether they don't come, it's all the same to me." Réchoussat knitted his brows to show his pride. Then he added, with a sigh: "You can go ahead with that stunt of yours."
As a matter of fact, Corporal Têtard was just ready. He had lighted a candle-end, and with a quick movement he pulled down the sheets of the bed.
Réchoussat's body appeared, extraordinarily thin. But Têtard paid little attention to that, and Réchoussat himself had lived for three months on fairly good terms with his illness. He knew quite well that a fragment of shell in the back is always a serious matter, and that when your arms and legs are paralyzed you can't go on putting things off from one day to another. Nevertheless, when the probe penetrated him, he uttered that consecrated phrase which he always repeated twice a day:
"What a wretched thing it is not to be able to do this business by yourself!"
The syringe was already in place. The glass receptacle was taking on the color of muddy amber, and a strong, penetrating odor was spreading through the chamber where the dying man lived the life of a recluse.
"That relieves you?" asked Têtard.
"Yes, it's a relief. It's six o'clock now and they haven't come yet. Lucky thing it's nothing to me!"
The corporal did not answer. With a bored air he was rubbing his rubber gloves one against the other. The flame of the candle, chained to its wick, leaped and strained like a poor prisoner that wanted to detach itself and rise, all by itself, in the darkness of the chamber, above that darkness, higher, still higher in the wintry sky, up into those regions where the sounds of this war of men were no longer to be heard. The wounded man and the attendant watched the flame without speaking, their eyes wide and empty. The glass receptacle slowly uttered a little liquid murmur. From second to second, the far-off guns sent a shudder through the windows, and each time the candle flame seemed to give a nervous leap.
"Takes long. You're not cold?" asked Têtard.
"As for the lower part of my body, I don't know what cold is."
"That will come back."
"Surely it will come back. It's dead, but it's got to come alive again! I'm twenty-five years old: that's an age when you have some vigor in your flesh!"
The corporal nodded his head, embarrassed. Réchoussat seemed to him pretty far gone: he had great sores wherever his body touched the bed, and they had put him by himself to conceal the spectacle of his slow agony from the sight of his more fortunate comrades.
A long moment passed. The silence was too heavy for the nothings they had to say. Then, as if continuing some discussion within himself, Réchoussat suddenly went on:
"Just the same, you know, it doesn't take much to please me. If they had only come for two minutes!"
"Keep still!" said Têtard. "Keep still!"
He strained his ear toward the door. There was a confused noise coming down the corridor, with sudden shadows and gusts of fresh air.
"Hello! there they are!" said the attendant.
Réchoussat stretched his neck.
"Bah! I tell you it isn't so!"
All at once a supernatural light, with rich red and golden reflections, an unheard of, a fairylike light had burst out in the corridor. The opposite wall appeared. Usually it was as gray as the thoughts of December; suddenly it had the splendor of an Oriental palace or the gown of a princess. All this light was mingled with sound, a sound of voices and laughter. One could not distinguish any one person singing, but all together the sound seemed like some great song. Réchoussat, who could not move himself, strained his neck and lifted his hands a little above the sheet, as if he wished to touch that beautiful sound and that beautiful light.
"You see, you see!" said Têtard. "I told you they'd come."
Of a sudden everything seemed to be on fire. Something had just stopped before the door--a tree, a real fir-tree from the woods, set up in a green box. There were so many little lamps and so many pink candles on its branches that it looked like an enormous torch. The little room, like a heart that is too happy, seemed as if it would burst with all this light inside of it. And there was something more wonderful still: the Three Wise Men entered. They were Sorri, the Senegalese sharp-shooter, Moussa, and Cazin. They wore mantles of Andrinople and long white beards made with cotton and bandages.
They all entered and moved to the other end of Réchoussat's room. Sorri carried a package with a favor in it; Moussa brandished two cigars and Cazin a bottle of champagne. All three of them saluted ceremoniously, as they had been taught to do, and Réchoussat suddenly found himself with a box of bonbons in his right hand, two cigars in his left, and a sparkling bottle on his little table. He said:
"Ah, no, boys! That's too much! No, no, boys!"
Moussa and Cazin laughed, Sorri showed his teeth, and all the bad odor of the room was gone, as if only a little light had been needed to drive it away.
"Ah, no, boys!" repeated Réchoussat. "I don't smoke, but I'll keep the cigars as a souvenir. Pass me the wine!"
Sorri took the bottle in both hands and presented it as if it were a sacred cup. Réchoussat drank slowly, saying:
"That's the real stuff! What good wine!"
There were more than twenty faces at the door, and all the faces were laughing like the gentle, naive face of Réchoussat himself.
Then followed a regular sunset. The marvelous tree went off, jerkily, down the corridor. The Three Wise Men vanished, with their trailing mantles and their cotton beards. Réchoussat still held his bottle in his hand and looked at the candle as if all the lights had remained in this one. He laughed softly, as he repeated: "That surely is real wine!" Then he went on laughing a little, without saying anything.
Very softly the darkness slipped back into the room and spread itself everywhere, like a familiar animal disturbed from its customary place.
Something else, something dreary, stole back everywhere with it, the odor of Réchoussat's illness. A murmurous silence settled over everything in the room, like dust. The face of the wounded man ceased to reflect the splendor of the festive tree; he lowered his eyes, looked at the bed, at those thin, ulcerated legs which were his legs, at the glass jar full of muddy liquid, at the probe,--at all these incomprehensible things, and he said, stammering with astonishment:
"But . . . but . . . What's the meaning of all this? What's the meaning of all this?"