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In the Vineyard
FROM Epernay to Château-Thierry the Marne flows delightfully between the graceful hills, covered with vineyards and orchards, crowned with verdure like rural goddesses, adorned with all those riches of vegetation which give to the land of France its preciousness, its nobility, its beauty.
It is the valley of repose. Jaulgonne, Dormans, Châtillon, Oeuilly, Port-à-Binson, smiling old villages, may you be blessed for the hours of forgetfulness that you lavished, like a spring of gushing water, upon the exhausted troops who from Verdun came back toward the sectors, calm till of late, of the Aisne.
During the summer of 1916 the -- Army Corps was concentrated once more on the Marne, before going to take its sanguinary part in the great sacrifice of the Somme. Our battalion was waiting without impatience the order to set out, while we counted from the hilltops the convoys that panted for breath in the bottom of the valley, and gave ourselves over, as the way is, to all sorts of reflections.
With a few of our comrades we passed the greater part of our days among the fields, without thinking too much, full of the delight of animal indolence, far from the murderous din of the line. There had been a few days of glistening heat; then a storm had come, with a roaring sky, a tumbling of angry clouds, a great wind charged by turns with dust and mist.
Toward the close of a certain afternoon we found ourselves on the road which rises gently from Chavenay toward the groves of the South.
There were three of us. The conversation languished. Unawares, we were returning to our own private thoughts, which we found were full of pain; and the mounting road seemed to make us, step by step, more heavy-hearted still.
"Let's sit down on the bank," said a weary voice.
Without having taken the trouble to reply, we found ourselves suddenly lying among the clumps of silverweed; we pulled at it with heedless hands like people who occupy their muscles in order to dream with a freer soul.
One little vine began at our feet and reached in two graceful folds over a hummock of earth sparkling with dampness and wet grasses. It was a pretty little grapevine, clean, swelling with sap, as well cared for as if it were something holy. There were no weeds, nothing but the thick vine-stalks and the earth, that opulent earth which the rains swept away and which every season the peasants brought up again in full baskets, on their backs, to the summits of the hills.
From the midst of this harmonious verdure we saw suddenly rising up a thin old woman, with a weather-beaten face and white hair all in disorder. In one hand she was holding a bucket full of ashes, with the other throwing handfuls of this dust about the roots of the vines.
Seeing us, she interrupted her labor, restored with a powdery finger a lock of hair which the wind was teasing, and looked at us fixedly. Then she spoke:
"What regiment do you belong to, you men?"
"The one hundred and tenth of the line, Madame."
"My boys didn't belong to that regiment."
"You have sons in the army?"
"Eh! I had."
There fell a silence filled with the calls of animals, the gusts of wind, and the whistling of the agitated foliage. The old woman threw a few handfuls of ashes, approached us, and continued in a trembling voice:
"I had sons in the army. I haven't any now. The two younger ones were killed, you see. I have one poor boy still, but he's hardly a soldier any more."
"He is wounded, perhaps?"
"Yes, he's wounded. He has no arms."
The old woman placed her basket of ashes on the ground, pulled a straw from her waistband, fastened to the vine-stick a branch that had been broken away from the line, and, suddenly straightening herself up, began to cry out:
"He's been wounded as not many have been wounded. He has lost both his arms and he has a hole in his thigh big enough for you to put a bowl into it that would hold two sous' worth of milk. And for ten days he was like a man who is going to die. I went to see him, and I said to him right out: 'Clovis, you don't want to leave me all alone, do you?' For I must tell you that it's a long time since they have had any father. And he kept answering: 'It will be better tomorrow.' For I must tell you that there isn't a sweeter boy in the world than that one."
We remained silent. One of us murmured, nevertheless: "Your boy is brave, Madame!"
The old woman, who was tending her vine, turned her faded eyes on us again, and said sharply:
"Brave! It would take more than that to make one of my boys show a lack of courage!"
She gave a sort of proud laugh, a smothered laugh which was at once swept away by the wind. Then she said dreamily:
"My poor boy, he'll manage to get married all the same; for I tell you there isn't a sweeter boy in the world than that one. But the two young ones, the two little ones, that was too much, all at once. Yes, it was too much."
We could find nothing to say. There was nothing to say. Her hair blowing in the wind, the old woman began to throw her ashes again, like a sower of death. Her lips were pressed closely together; her whole figure expressed a mingling of despair, bewilderment, obstinacy.
"What are you doing there, Madame?" I asked, somewhat at random.
"I'm putting on the ashes, you see--it's time--with the sulphate. It's time! I shall never get through; there are too many things to do, too many things."
We had got up, as if ashamed to distract this indefatigable worker from her task. With a single impulse we took off our hats to bid her good-by.
"Good-evening," she said; "and good luck to you, too, you men."
We climbed all the way to the border of the wood without uttering a word. There we turned about to survey the valley. We could see on the other slope, in the mosaic of cultivated plots, the vineyard, with the old woman, very small, continuing to sow her ashes in the wind, which blew them about in clouds. The peaceful country-side preserved under the stormy sky an aspect of purity and resignation. Here and there the humble, shining villages were set into the earth like many-colored gems. And even in the fields, ready for the labors of the harvest, one perceived little specks slowly moving about: a population of old people struggling with the earth.