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From Civilization: 1914-1917, by Georges Duhamel, 1918


The Projects of Cousin

WHENEVER I had a moment of liberty, I used to go and sit down on the foot of Cousin's bed. He would say to me:

"Good, there's room for you now they've cut off my leg. One might say it had been done on purpose."

What a young, delicate face this man of forty had! On "barber's days," when the razor had gone around, it was pleasant to look at that perpetual, confident smile of Cousin's. It was a supernatural smile, a little shrewd, a little ironical, frank in a way, somewhat irritated, the smile of the race itself,-made with lips that were faded from loss of blood, with features drawn by a strain that had lasted too long and been too great. In spite of all, Cousin kept his confident air--confident, having no doubts about the world in general and sure of himself just because he was alive, because he was Cousin.

One leg remained to him which, to speak frankly, was good for nothing at all. The knee-joint had been very deeply wounded by a splinter from a torpedo. It wasn't doing well and people spoke of it in a low voice, with shakings of the head.

But rubbish! Cousin's confidence didn't lie particularly in his leg. He had already parted with one; he didn't seem to pay much attention to its companion. Cousin's confidence, I believe, didn't lie in any precise part of his chest, his head, or his members. With a leg more or less he remained himself, and from his light-green eyes issued a courageous flame that was not of the look only, but came from his very soul.

Whenever I sat down on his bed Cousin would tell me about his little affairs. He always carried the events up to the point where the war had interrupted them, and he had a natural tendency to unite the beautiful past of peace with a not less delicious future. Over the troubled and bloody abyss he loved to prolong the life of other days into the life that was coming. Never verbs in the imperfect tense, but an eternal and miracuous present!

"I am an agent for objets d'art," he told me. "It's a profitable trade when you really understand it. I specialize in chandeliers and hanging lamps. I work with Cohen and Company, with Marguille, with Smithson, with all the great houses. Now, I have a particular way of workng: I keep my customer for myself and I take pains to make him understand what he wants and to knock it down for him. Let's suppose that I have here a certain Monsieur Barnabé, who has just asked me for a drawing-room luster. I say, 'Good, I see what you need,' and I jump into a taxi. I go to Cohen and Company.'Take twenty-five for one hundred? That a bargain?' We'll say that Cohen makes difficulties. Good! I run down the staircase, jump into the taxi again, and we spin to Smithson's. I have to admit that there are expenses: suppose that Barnabé refuses, well, there I am stuck with my taxi on my back. But it's interesting! It's a trade that keeps you running, amuses you, requires taste."

I would begin to smile, myself, as I watched Cousin's animated face. He had in his cheeks two white streaks that were "not quite right"; he had, too, the slightly swollen eyes of a man who has been lying too long in bed with fever, and who is "not quite sound inside the body." At forty, however young the spirit feels itself, the flesh does not receive as kindly as at twenty splinters from torpedoes. So I watched Cousin's face with amazement, while this man whose leg had been amputated explained to me how, in his trade, one clambers up to Cohen's, takes a leap to Marguillés, tumbles down-stairs at Smithson's.

A day came when Cousin's leg began to bleed. The blood percolated through the dressings in drops that grew larger and larger, like a scarlet sweat, like the morning dew on cabbage leaves. For four or five days Cousin bled almost every day. Each time he was carried off hastily; they stuffed all sorts of things into the wound and the blood stopped flowing. Each time Cousin came back to his bed a little paler, and said to me on his way by: "You see? You can never have any peace with little affairs like this going on."

One morning I went to sit beside Cousin, who was making his toilet. He was out of breath. In spite of his swollen face he looked emaciated, shrunken, consumed by some illness within. Actually, he made me think of a piece of fruit fretted by insects.

"I have some good news about my boys," he said to me. "Twelve and thirteen years old! Shooting up. And think how they're going to help me in my business! I haven't told you? I'm thinking of taking on ornamental clocks and chimney-pieces, beside chandeliers. With the trade I have I'm going to make some stunning deals. You must always see things in a big way. By George! it will make me hustle; but I'll arrange it, I'll arrange it! The thing that's necessary is to know the styles."

Unable to suppress a pang in my heart, I tried to smile. It was as if Cousin were lifted up by a lyric enthusiasm. With one hand he brandished his towel, with the other his soap. He was describing his beautiful future to me like a man who saw it spread out, written in big letters on the white expanse of his bedclothes.

On the coverlet, at which I was looking intently, suddenly appeared a spot, a red spot that rapidly grew larger, a spot terrifyingly bright.

"Come, now," murmured Cousin, "there it is, bleeding again! You're never left in peace!"

I went for help. They wrapped Cousin's thigh with a rubber band, while he remarked: "Gently, gently! Don't get excited!"

He said this in a voice that was grave but feeble, a voice that came from the lips alone.

The blood stopped flowing and they carried Cousin once more to the operating-table.

There he had a moment of calm. The surgeons were washing their hands. I heard them talking in low voices about Cousin's case, and it made my heart throb and my tongue turn dry in my mouth.

Cousin saw me at a distance and made me a little sign with his eyelids. I came over to him. He said to me:

"One can never have any peace! Ah! what was I telling you then? Yes, I was speaking to you about styles. My strong point is just that, I know the styles: the Louis Fifteenth, the Empire, the Dutch, the modern, all of them. Only, it's difficult. I'll explain to you--"

"You must go to sleep, Cousin," the surgeon said, gently.

Cousin looked at the mask as at an old acquaintance, and he still took the time to say to me:

"I'll explain it to you when these gentlemen have finished with me, when I'm awake again."

Then, with composure, he began to breathe the ether.

More than a year has gone by since then. I often think, Cousin, of those explanations you did not give me, those explanations you will never give me.

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